It’s been a humbling few years for John Mayer, the singer, guitarist and Fairfield native.
First he blew up his personal life in 2010 with a crass interview in Playboy that included a racial epithet and dished a little too deeply on ex-girlfriends Jessica Simpson and Jennifer Aniston. Then doctors last year found granulomas near his vocal cords, requiring surgery and vocal rest that delayed the release of his fifth studio album, “Born and Raised” (Columbia), and forced Mayer to cancel summer tour plans when the condition recurred earlier this year.
Together, those tumults have sanded down Mayer’s cockier edges on “Born and Raised,” which is in many ways a penitent album. Mayer’s done thoughtful before, notably on 2009’s “Battle Studies,” but here he sounds chastened, too, on songs that are less about having all the answers than trying to ask the right questions.
Many of his lyrics are about trying to do the right thing, or live a purposeful life, and there are flashes of autobiography in references to his parents’ divorce on the title track and his own trials on “Shadow Days,” when he sings, “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.”
Mayer is one of the few acts of his stature willing to alter the pop formula that made him a success in the first place on his 2001 debut “Room for Squares,” and he’s dabbled in blues, soul and rock ’n’ roll on subsequent albums. The songs on “Born and Raised” are low-key and tuneful folk-pop tunes, full of acoustic guitars and understated accompaniment from guests including trumpeter Chris Botti, violinist Sara Watkins, and David Crosby and Graham Nash, who add vocals to the title track.
Opener “Queen of California” has a golden, hazy charm that sounds like sunset in Laurel Canyon, while the plaintive “Whiskey, Whiskey, Whiskey,” with mournful harmonica between verses, captures the feel of New York City on a rainy night. Mayer layers smooth electric guitar licks over piano on “Shadow Days” and takes a subtly whimsical turn on the lilting “Walt Grace’s Submarine Test, January 1967.”
Although Mayer has from the start displayed musical skill far beyond his years, “Born and Raised” is his first grown-up album, instead of an album that’s merely trying to sound grown up. Mayer came by his new maturity the hard way, but it suits him well.
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