Infamy has its uses, and atonement has its limits. John Mayer, who has come to grips with at least one of those truths, doesn’t want to seem ungracious in the face of judgment. He wants you to know that he’s his own harshest critic, even if he can’t help saving a piece of justification for himself. Over the past two years, anyway, in the wake of a self-damaging round of publicity and a corresponding shudder of contrition, he has plumbed the depths of his broken soul, returning with lessons in song.
So goes the irresistible subtext of “Born and Raised,” Mayer’s fifth studio album, a precious gift wrapped in burlap and baling twine. As palatably sure-footed as anything in his multimillion-selling catalog, the album — which he produced with Don Was, a veteran rock ‘n’ roll ego whisperer — nonetheless reflects a shrewd adjustment, swapping out his usual airtight gleam for a meaningful touch of Laurel Canyon folk-rock. The opening track, “Queen of California,” name-checks early 1970s landmarks by Neil Young and Joni Mitchell over an easeful groove cribbed from the Grateful Dead. The title track, about owning up to the passage of time, has background vocals by the present-day David Crosby and Graham Nash.
This is an album of dual impulse, in other words, an attempt to turn back the clock while moving forward. “If I Ever Get Around to Living,” another Dead-evoking tune, paints an image of Mayer’s 17-year-old self, dreaming and hopeful, as-yet unmarked by tattoos or TMZ. “I think you better wise up, boy,” he sings during the fade-out, and it’s unclear whether he is admonishing his younger self or his current one.
Elsewhere he leaves no such uncertainty. “The stage was set, the words were mine / I’m not complaining,” he quavers softly in “Whiskey, Whiskey, Whiskey,” a patently Mayeresque ballad. “The Age of Worry” mines similar territory: “Know your fight is not with them/Yours is with your time here.” And the album’s gently twangy lead single, “Shadow Days,” has been widely construed as a response to the country-pop star Taylor Swift and her indignant anthem “Dear John.”
The meta-narrative may be heavy-handed, but it anchors the songs convincingly. Maybe Mayer didn’t really set out to make his version of a Ryan Adams album, but it suits him at this moment, even when he lodges a curmudgeonly critique of the modern musical landscape, as on “Speak for Me.” (Wait, could that be another rejoinder to Swift, who used “Speak Now” as her most recent album title? I don’t know. Calm yourself.)
One of the strangest and most affecting songs here is “Walt Grace’s Submarine Test, January 1967,” about a basement tinkerer who set off in a homemade submersible despite the advice of everyone close to him. Mayer unravels the tale dispassionately, although it’s not hard to see his investment in it: the solitude, the skepticism, the perilous depths. And eventually, against long odds, coming up for a new lungful of air. —Nate Chinen, The New York Times