John Mayer and I have such a complicated relationship, sometimes I wonder if we'll ever get it right. On the one hand, if you were to look at the 25 Most Played Songs on my iPod, you would be certain to find a little gem called "Half of My Heart" pretty close to the top of the list. On the other hand, when the leading single from "Born and Raised" was released, "Shadow Days", my incredibly eloquent review to a friend was that it was the "sookiest of all the sooky la la songs. Ever." I know. Erudite is my middle name. Let me be honest, I still stand by my review of that particular song. I think it's a bit much for a guy who spent a lot of time talking to journalists about some pretty ungentlemanly things to release a song about what a good man he is with such a good heart. Just google his Playboy and Rolling Stone interviews from 2010 if you're curious, and didn't hear about his comments at the time.
So I procrastinated about making the decision to spend $16.99 on downloading "Born and Raised", and giving our troubled romance (ha ha) another chance. But, apologies and deleting of Twitter accounts aside, I was genuinely interested in what his latest musical offering had to...well, offer. Mayer has been pretty quiet publicity-wise over the last few years and I was also curious to see if I could listen to the album without all the white noise of celebrity gossip and drama seeping through. Also, this is one of the best photobombs I have ever seen. The guy clearly has a sense of humour, so how could I say no?
For a girl raised on what I affectionately refer to as "Dad Music" the opening chords of "Queen of California" - the first track on the album - are a lot like slipping into that comfortable soundscape of 1970s music populated by The Eagles, James Taylor and Fleetwood Mac. In fact, the title track features backing vocals from David Crosby and Graham Nash, and is one of the best cuts on the album. Mayer is nothing if not straight up about his musical influences, so for those who would call him derivative well - at least he's honest about it, right?
One thing that Mayer does well, and has only become better at since his 2001 debut album "Room for Squares", is tell stories in a way that we don't see too much outside of country music these days. "Shadow Days" aside, his lyric writing is crisp and straightforward, without venturing too far into the territory of twee or fey. In fact, the album really does have a strong country vibe. But think the country of Townes Van Sandt, rather than Billy Ray... One such track is "Walt Grace's Submarine Test, January 1967." When I first listened to it, I could imagine The Dixie Chicks doing a cover, and the song itself is one of the standout storytelling tracks on the album.
For the guitar nerds among us, Mayer plays with Fenders and Martins on the album, and surprisingly enough there are less guitar solos on this album than there have been on his previous efforts. Some listeners will prefer this, but I've always been a fan of a well-done guitar solo, cheesy or not. Instead, the more complicated licks and runs are hanging out in the background, sneaking into the layer of each song like a whisper in your ear, rather than front and centre demanding your attention.
I was surprised by "Born and Raised" and pleasantly so. It's an album that is a lot quieter than I expected, and cruises through the 13 tracks without requiring too much effort from the listener. But if you choose to pay close attention to the details of the lyrics, and the production and instrumentation choices, you won't be disappointed. And really, anything with a bit of pedal steel on it is always going to make me pretty damn happy.