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.