John Mayer's mouth has gotten him in all sorts of trouble over the years. His music? Not so much. "Born and Raised," Mayer's fifth studio album, follows four successful full-lengths, all of which have reached the Top 10 of the Billboard 200. Sadly, "Born and Raised" is the first album the musician will not be able to support live, at least for the time being: Mayer is currently struggling with a throat condition called granuloma, and canceled a planned spring tour earlier this year.
On his latest, the singer, songwriter, guitarist and (increasingly) harmonica player works with Grammy Award-winning co-producer Don Was and a small, tight ensemble that features Chuck Leavell (the Rolling Stones, the Allman Brothers Band, Eric Clapton) on keyboards, while Chris Botti, Sara Watkins, Jim Keltner and Greg Leisz make guest appearances. It's one of Mayer's most diverse and exploratory albums yet, trying on a variety of different styles to accompany a set of particularly reflective and soul-searching tunes.
What are some of the best songs on "Born and Raised"? Here is the track-by-track breakdown of John Mayer's latest.
Queen of California: "Looking for the sun that Neil Young hung/After the gold rush of 1971," Mayer sings on the album's opening track -- and he's not kidding. "Queen of California," which also references Joni Mitchell, is cut straight from the Laurel Canyon of the early 70s with its gentle, acoustic start, a loose, jammy veneer and honey-sweet harmonies.
The Age of Worry: With some tasty acoustic picking leading into an anthemic Celtic signature, Mayer searches for his own peaceful easy feeling. "Don't be scared to walk alone/Don't be scared to like it," sings the man, whose high-profile couplings have made him a tabloid favorite.
Shadow Days: The first single from "Born and Raised" offers mea culpas and amends. "I ain't no troublemaker, and I never meant her harm," Mayer explains, adding "that doesn't mean I didn't make it hard to carry on." Nevertheless, he declares himself "a good man with a good heart" amidst a gentle mix of mellow Southern rock.
Speak For Me: Mayer's sonic tour of California turns towards Lindsey Buckingham here, with a rolling guitar figure and a gentle but lively mood. Mayer seems a little down on his colleagues here ("The music on my radio ain't supposed to make me feel alone") and yearns for someone who can "play a song that I can sing" and "make me feel as I am free."
Something Like Olivia: Jim Keltner's drumming lends this track a grittier groove, but it's still smooth, loose and soulful, with a little bit of church flavor thanks to Chuck Leavell's organ.
Born and Raised: The opening harmonica lends a Dylan-esque flavor to the album's title track, a rootsy paean marked by Greg Leisz's sharp lap steel and supporting vocals by David Crosby and Graham Nash. It's another coming to terms moment for Mayer, who mourns that "it gets hard to fake what I won't be."
If I Ever Get Around to Living: Mayer's still dreaming on "Born and Raised's" longest track -- this time back to when he was 17, without tattoos and heeding his mother's order to do his chores. The song sports a gentle countenance.
Love is a Verb: Somewhere Curtis Mayfield is smiling as Mayer taps into a soulful, organic "People Get Ready" vibe -- which, at only 2:24, could carry another minute or so without real effort. "You can't get through love/On just a pile of IOU's" is arguably the album's best lyric, too.
Walt Grace's Submarine Test, January 1967: A flight of fancy about a mad scientist/inventor/eccentric, his homemade underwater machine and a cruise across the Pacific. Chris Botti's trumpet gives the track a stately overture, and the rolling, martial-styled rhythm pattern propels the tune without intruding on the narrative.
Whiskey, Whiskey, Whiskey: Harmonica, piano and subtle guitar gently push things along as Mayer ruminates about "the man I never got to be," and about nights spent drinking and waking up (presumably) hungover and (definitely) alone.
A Face to Call Love: With Sara Watkins guesting on vocal and violin, Mayer eyeballs a hopeful future "of days that haven't happened yet," filled with easy domesticity that compensates for any of the past tumult in his life. Sweeter and poppier than the rest of "Born and Raised," it swells in volume and ends with a fully drawn arrangement that conveys both triumph and relief.
Born and Raised (Reprise): A short, end-credit kind of tune that's Cali-style country & western, with more harmonica and rootsy cheer.