Album Review: John Mayer’s ‘Born and Raised’ rears its graceful head

That sound you hear on John Mayer’s “Born and Raised” is an artist entering a new phase of his career, and, more importantly, his life.

The highly personal set, out Tuesday, May 22, is a stripped-down collection of tunes, mainly recorded as a four-piece, that has plenty to say, but is in absolutely no rush to make its point.

Whether it’s that life slapped Mayer around a bit lately after opening his mouth a few too many times about his love life, his having to deal with ongoing vocal issues, or producer Don Was’s relaxed approach —most likely a combo of all three — the multiple Grammy winner sounds more inviting than he has in years.

Gone is the condescension of “Daughters” or the lofty idealism of “Waiting on the World To Change.” They’ve been replaced with a much more appealing seeker who has way more questions than answers these days. Even his guitar playing, as elegant and nuanced as always, never veers into the showy. He has a certain Eric Clapton/George Harrison-esque ease on confessional first single, “Shadow Days.”

The tracks are all mid-tempo (which is the album’s one weakness: too many songs of the same speed), but each one has its own personality. On the lovely “A Face To Call Home,” on which he’s aided by Sara Watkins, he yearns to jump ahead and start a life with someone that he’s still in the “getting-to-know-you” stage: “I am an architect of days that haven’t happened yet/I can’t believe a month is all it’s been.”  That first line is a killer: who hasn’t let their thoughts jump way ahead? “Something Like Olivia” has a sweet wistfulness as he longs for his buddy’s girl.

Watkins is not the only well-placed guest: most fitting are David Crosby and Graham Nash who wrap their vocals around the title track; a tune the sounds straight out of an album from The Band with its country leanings and Greg Leisz on lap steel. Trumpeter Chris Botti adds a tasty flourish to the opening of the fantastical (and intriguingly titled) “Walt Grace’s Submarine Test, Jan. 1967”

The set closes with the bluesy, fun “Fool To Love You,” which has the same shambolic feel of “Who Says” from  2009’s “Battle Studies’,” although the subject matter is different. As he heads into a doomed relationship, you can hear the rueful smile on his face as he sings, “I’ll be as happy as a broken man can be.”

There are no signs of any of the vocal issues that have plagued Mayer, causing him to temporarily halt work on this album and then, later, to cancel his tour when the vocal granuloma returned. He has always had an instantly recognizable raspy voice and any weary, weathered vocals evident on these tracks is no doubt intentional rather than from any voice problems. 

If the world came a little too easily for Mayer in his 20s, as he closes in on 35, he’s realized that life has a way of coming back around to slap the stuffing out of you at some point and that’s when the true tests begin.

“Born and Raised” is John Mayer with a side of humility and it suits him well.