John Mayer’s Born and Raised

Close your eyes and clone yourself
Build your heart an army
To defend your innocence
While you do everything wrong

So opens “The Age of Worry,” the second track from John Mayer’s latest album, Born and Raised. I’ve been obsessively listening to that song and the majority of the album all summer. It’s almost become my personal soundtrack for 2012.

That feels strange for me to type because I’ve never been what you could call a fan of Mayer’s. I’ve had a vague and often annoyed awareness of him and his music for the last decade. It’s been impossible not to.

He became an instant superstar upon the release of his first single in 2002, thanks in part to youth and good looks that made him generally popular with women, and generally less popular with men.

In the years since, many of his most mediocre songs have been piped into stores and elevators ad nauseam, and tabloids have taken a keen interest in his personal life. With the advent of Twitter, he became notorious for serial tweeting and dating starlets. If you had even one ear cocked toward the drumbeat of pop culture, you couldn’t escape him.

All of that culminated in 2010 when Mayer said some truly vulgar and offensive things (about famous ex-girlfriends, and other topics) in interviews in Rolling Stone and Playboy. In the aftermath of those interviews, he disappeared. I, for one, did not miss him.

While running errands a few months ago, I heard Guy Raz interviewing Mayer on NPR. I remember: I was a stoplight at the intersection of South Temple and I Street, and thought, well, I guess I can sit through this.

But as I listened, I became fascinated by the story Mayer told about burnout, ego run amok, being a control freak, the “Stockholm syndrome” of celebrity, the failure to be grateful, and the loss of vision and vocation.

And the song clips Raz played sounded…really good.

When I got home, I listened to the interview again, and then found the extended version. I couldn’t and can’t remember ever hearing a celebrity artist at Mayer’s level sound so sincerely contrite and open about the experience of being humbled, about running up against a false self and doing something about it before it was too late.

I set aside everything I thought I knew about John Mayer and, thanks to Spotify, gave Born and Raised a full and fair listen. I wound up listening to it so many times that I decided to go ahead and buy the CD.

I wondered: Had he always been this good? Had I just not been listening? I went back through some of his older albums (Spotify again) and sampled various tracks. The answer is no.

He’s always been a gifted musician, but as far as I could tell most of his earlier songs contain pretty standard stuff about romantic love—wanting it, getting it, losing it, wanting it back. Or, they’re lukewarm, impersonal philosophy about life on Earth.

The songs on Born and Raised are very different. They come directly out of this experience of confronting a self that had become grossly distorted by fame and infamy.

When Raz pointed out in the NPR interview how personal the songs are, Mayer said, “I had nowhere else to go… I couldn’t get any less genuine at a certain point.”

The heart of the album, to me, lies in the chorus of “Speak for Me”:

Show me something I can be
Play a song that I can sing
Make me feel as I am free
Someone come speak for me

It’s a plea for something to care about, and for some help, an advocate, in that quest. In a verse of the same song, he sings, “Now they’re celebrating broken things / I don’t want a world of broken things.” This includes his own life, which he clearly recognized as broken in the process of writing this album.

From my small sampling of his prior work, I guess you could describe his other recent albums as confessional, but Born and Raised is closer to confessional in the religious sense.

In a way it’s an album of repentance. He’s repenting, telling himself and anyone who will listen, that he betrayed his vocation. A vocation that isn’t fulfilled by being the most popular or the coolest or the most respected or the funniest or most re-tweeted, but a call to “make music for anyone who wants to hear it.”

It follows that death-burial-resurrection arc most good art does. It’s also about self-forgiveness, which is sometimes the hardest forgiveness to give and receive.

As a non-fan (until now), I’ve been surprised by the impact this album and the words Mayer has said about it have had on me. It’s the perfect thing to be listening to as I recover from my own burnout and enter a time of reconnecting to my vocation.

Unexpected wisdom from an unexpected place.

In the album’s first single, Mayer sings, “My shadow days are over now. Well, that would be nice. Will the repentance stick? The self-forgiveness? Does it for any of us? We think we’re done with something, and it comes back in a different form. We think we’re fixed, and we discover another crack.

Mayer recently succumbed to the temptation to comment on a famous ex’s song about him, and also admitted that he’s stalked the Internet a little bit to see what people are saying about his new album.

John, if you’re out there: Good work. And not just on the songs. Now get back to it.

So line on up, and take your place
And show your face to the morning.

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  • What an unexpected, fair, and lovely review. You may have actually inspired me to give John Mayer a try! (Or should I say, “a chance”?) More, though, you’ve inspired me as a reviewer. This nuanced and discerning – but not unkind – analysis is a challenge to me in my own writing. Thank you.

  • Dyana Herron

    I’ve never listened to a John Mayer album. Now I will. Thanks, Sara.

  • Anna

    I have just been hating myself this week for enjoying an “accidental” re-listen of his 2005 album so much. I suppose I have to give the new album a try, thanks to you!!

  • M@ybs

    This is one of the best album reviews I’ve read for B & R. Thank you for the insight!

  • T.Martin Lesh.

    Just a couple of additional insights on John Mayer ;

    First off … the thing that did keep him on most guys radars despite all the hype about his looks etc has been his Guitar Playing . Sure the early songs leaned towards vapid … but underneath it all there was a player lurking beneath the shadows .

    Fame is as I’ve stated in the past … a very cruel and demanding mistress . So the fact that Mayer fell into her grasp should surprise no one . The only surprise in fact being that he didn’t fall further and that now he at least in print/song is trying to make amends . Having said that though ……… maintain just a bit of skepticism until its obvious this new mindset of his has truly taken . I’ve been around the ‘ business ‘ far too long to not assume this ‘ new ‘ John Mayer may in fact just be another publicity stunt from an industry riddled with them ( need I remind anyone about Dylan’s entire ” I’m a Christian .. No I’m Not … Now I’m a Jew … No not that either ” debacle ? ) Even if its not a publicity ploy artists in general to tend towards chameleon behavior e.g. Changing strips faster than most people change channels .

    But …. lets hope John Mayer really is serious and in the mean time appreciate the fact that he’s finally living up to his potential with this new CD and enjoy the music

  • lawrence

    I was a huge fan of the egotistical sound John produced when he was in his trio, then felt a bit disenchanted when he want to more of a pop sound in the last three albums. However I am always ready to give him a try, to see if I like him – it’s hard not to when he is definitely one of the best guitarists of this generation.

    I too found this to be an album of repentance. I listen to it over and over, I’ve found myself crying through a number of his songs and it feels like we’ve finally met the real man behind the guitar.

    A very generous and humble album: my favorite of 2012 for sure.

  • Frank Schaeffer

    John Mayer’s media problems/misspoken interviews etc., stem from the fact that he has a great talent as both a jazz guitarist and rock guitarist — comparable with Clapton and Hendrix — but has spent his life in pop. He’s just been too successful (and good looking) in a devalued over-produced pop culture that for good reason he doesn’t respect. If you listen to the music he made with the John Mayer Trio you know that Mayer’s talent is huge. He just lives in the wrong time. If he had been around when Django Reinhardt was playing virtuoso jazz in the 1940s or been launched on Top of the Pops in the UK circa 1963 he would have been a “Clapton” or “Django” of the guitar. His problem is that he has a great rock voice too and was born in the wrong time and so made it in a time when his serious ability was diverted into pop. It would be frustrating to be as good as he is and be stuck with being too successful in the wrong time, place and musical medium. It probably hasn’t helped that he’s as good looking as he is either.

  • Barbie Jo

    Like T. Martin Lesh observed, I fear this might be a publicity stunt. Room for Squares was my Most-Listened-To-Album of all times because I fell under the spell of Mayer’s hypnotic voice and clever lyrics. But after all the dating and dissing of women, I came to see him less as an innocent genius and more of a cynical, manipulative player. Now the Connecticut born Jewish kid has morphed into a long-haired, scruffy, country music troubador? with an album cover design and an accent to reinforce his new persona. Sorry John, there is a credibility gap that will always makes me wonder if everything you do is motivated by marketing.