John Mayer - Shadow Days
Record Label: Sony/Columbia
Release Date: May 18, 2012
There are always certainties in life: the sun sets and rises every day, weather temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere lower in the winter, Manhattan has more Starbucks per square mile than any other U.S. city, and last but certainly not least, singer/songwriter John Mayer will release an album that raises the bar on his own musical abilities. Exhibit A is his latest, Born and Raised, his fifth full-length studio album, and arguably his best to date.
This 12-song collection veers heavily towards Americana and folk but also mines deeper lyrical themes, including but not limited to: personal growth, fortitude and of course, romance. While Born and Raised has many lyrical highs, a good starting off point is the supple lead-single "Shadow Days," which hit airwaves in early March. Ostensibly a song about maturity it is as potent as anything the singer has ever released. In it, a piano shimmers over bristling guitar as the singer admits, "I'm a good man with a good heart, had a tough time, got a rough start, but I finally learned to let it go." And it is there that Mayer reveals himself to be contrite and ready for change. This attitude is revisited on the spartan acoustic number "Speak for Me," which points to his much-maligned magazine interviews, and the string-infused "Age of Worry," which reveals itself to be an ode to fortitude. Similarly, "If I Ever Get Around to Living," visits the theme of enjoying life's hidden moments.
But the biggest talking point about Born and Raised is most definitely the Americana vibe that permeates from start to finish. Working alongside famed producer Don Was (Rolling Stones, Willie Nelson, Bonnie Raitt, Bob Dylan), the album feels like something that could sit alongside The Byrd's Sweetheart of the Rodeo or The Band's Music From Big Pink. Nowhere is that more apparent than on the rustling opening number "Queen of California," which revisits 70s album rock a la CSNY. Nash and Crosby actually appear later on the album in the form of the autobiographical title track, which may or may not be about his parents' divorce.
For those that prefer Mayer's distinct blues sound, the groove-infused "Something Like Olivia," and the jam-band inspired "If I Ever Get Around to Living," are certain to whet those collective appetites. Those that liked his late 90s coffeehouse nature will find the valentine "A Face to Call Home," and the simple "Love is a Verb," most appealing. And for those that swoon when Mayer is forlorn and yearning, there's the harmonica-led "Whiskey, Whiskey, Whiskey," and the Laurel Canyon-inspired "Born and Raised (Reprise)."
And yet for all its many peaks, few are as powerful as the near-perfect "Walt Grace's Submarine Test, January 1967," which is arguably the best song Mayer has ever written. And it is there within the five minutes of "Walt Grace," that everything you thought you knew about John Mayer as a musician has changed. A lilting narrative about a discontent husband who dreams of a different life, the song is profound, plaintive and nothing short of revelatory. Gone is the Mayer who chronicled heartbreak and romantic discontent. In its stead is a Mayer who challenges life's tougher questions and unravels a yarn about the facets of life that are often too difficult to face.
As a whole, Born and Raised is contrite, earnest and warm. The songs are definitely low-key and never veer from their folk edges. There's ample amounts of pedal steel, violin and piano, and those instruments marry well with the album's theme of apologia and soul-seeking. That last point is important because throughout Born and Raised, one gets the sense that Mayer seems hell-bent on living a life of purpose and one full of conviction, clarity and meaning. That kind of mission statement is why on Born and Raised, the singer-songwriter indeed sounds more grown up than ever before. In the end, it is as strong a statement as he has ever made and only further proof that Mayer is indeed in a league all his own.
What an absolutely fantastic album. I really feel like the second-half of the album is the strongest set of songs - Walt Grace truly is Mayer's best song ever. Hopefully it won't be too long until we can see some of these performed live.
I put this on my ipod last night and went for a walk this morning. It was about 5:30 AM, before suburbia really started waking up. Slight misting, and I just walked and listened to this album and was at peace for 48 minutes or so. And, yeah, I've loved Mayer since I (accidentally) found Room for Squares, and this is his best work yet.
I would have given this a 95. The entire album is great, but the second half is some of the best music I've heard in the past couple of years. The lyrics on this are some of my favorite he's ever written.