I wanted to take some time to write up a proper review of Born and Raised. I say proper, but I haven’t even taken the time to properly review or edit it for grammatical mistakes. Anyway, I’ve been fortunate enough to listen to the record a few times now and feel like I know about the album enough to at least give a preliminary opinion. In certain respects, it is difficult to write about the album because I don’t own a copy and I’m sure I will pick up on things during future listens of the record that I’m not consciously aware of now. However, there is an exciting element of giving an impression of an album without having that future immersion.
First things first, a little bit of information about me. Even though you may know me, I am going to assume you have no clue who I am. My name is Richard Young and I reside in New York City. I consider myself fortunate to be an early John Mayer fan going back to the year 2000. In 2001, I started up a Mayer fan community called My Stupid Mouth, which can be found here. For some unknown reason, it took off in a big way and is still around today (with almost 64 million total visits, I might add). I’ve been very privileged as it relates to Mayer ever since.
To give you an example, I’ve had amazing opportunities to hear Heavier Things, Battle Studies and most recently, Born and Raised, in advance of release dates. In the case of the former 2 albums, I only heard them once before they were released. I don’t believe I wrote up a review of Battle Studies and if I did write a review of Heavier Things, it was after the album was released. I don’t know what’s different this time around, but I’m feeling inspired to share my listening experience(s) with you.
The first listen I had of Born and Raised was less about analyzing and more about absorbing. I don’t know about you, but for me listening to a new album is a real experience. This is especially true for an album that I’ve long anticipated, like this one. Once Born and Raised is released, it will have been approximately 2.5 years since Battle Studies went on sale. That’s not to say that during my first listen I didn’t pick up on certain attributes of the album or form any opinions. I’m just saying that aspect wasn’t my focus. Some things I recall of my first listen of Born and Raised…
- It didn’t sound anything like any other album John had released.
- There were musical influences present on this album that weren’t present on any of John’s other albums
- Some songs sounded drastically different from when they were first performed live at the Hotel Café and other venues
- Maybe most importantly, the album sounded the best on 1 listen of any record of John’s I had heard in advance of release
On my second listen, however, I was able to dive deeper and really analyze the album, which I’ll share my thoughts on. So we’re clear, these are my opinions and not based in facts. I’ve not spoken with JM or anyone associated with him about the meaning of these songs, so it’s purely what I have deduced on my own accord. I fully acknowledge I could be off base and that these songs stemmed from other experiences and stories. If you’re concerned that my opinions will skew yours too much, then you may not want to read my review. So, read at your own risk! It’s a lengthy read, very lengthy, I might add. However, it’s thorough and that’s how I like to roll, so I hope you like it.
I also figured the easiest way would be to break down the review by song with a conclusion at the end to wrap it up. Without further ado…
QUEEN OF CALIFORNIA
The first thing that hit me about this tune is the folky acoustic guitar intro reminiscent of Fleetwood Mac’s Never Going Back Again. I think it’s the perfect song to open the album. The tempo is fun and toe-tap worthy and it feels like the start to a road trip. And in a more symbolic way, it feels like John is turning the page. It seems like he’s moving on from some of his least favorite parts of his past. The opening lyrics are pretty reflective of that:
And goodbye shame
And it seems like he’s on to something new, as he sings…
What’s your name
And then closer to the end of the tune, John sings…
Joni wrote ‘Blue’ in a house by the sea
I gotta believe there’s another color waiting on me
To set me free
I could be wrong, but it seems like like John is optimistically saying he’s moving on and he’s at that beginning stage. As for the rest of the song, Greg Leisz adds a nice pedal steel guitar part (in fact—he plays all of the pedal steel on the record and oddly enough, has played with the referenced ‘Joni’ from this song too). The song features a really great, yet tasteful electric guitar solo. The piano part played by Chuck Leavell really fills out the song and makes the arrangement sound fuller. In fact, I’m pretty sure Born & Raised has more piano on it than any other Mayer record to date. John’s voice sounds wonderful and I love the extended outro to this song. It reminds me of something that I can’t seem to put my finger on.
Perhaps I also love this song because Neil Young’s After the Goldrush happens to be my favorite album of his and John’s mention of Joni Mitchell’s Blue is my favorite album by her as well. I’ve always know John to have great taste, and part of John’s genius has always been capturing a feeling or an emotion that I (and I’m sure most of his fans) have felt. In this case, he referenced 2 of my favorite records ever. I don’t know if this song will be a single, but I think it could be a sleeper for a release.
THE AGE OF WORRY
What immediately hits me about this song after the acoustic guitar intro is its HUGE sound with the large percussion presence in the opening. I’m unsure if Aaron Sterling (who plays drums and percussion on all but one song on the record) uses a timpani at the beginning and during the booming chorus or not. It could be a drum kit using a special effect, I’m not sure. The bottom line is that the sound is big and that can be attributed to the percussion.
What’s also interesting, and I could be wrong, but I don’t think there is any electric guitar on this song. If it is, it’s faint and in the background. I love the vocal background harmonies that sound reminiscent of the Jayhawks.
I think the lyrics in this song are pretty straightforward, but still relatable to a lot of people. The idea of the song seems to be that it’s easy to worry about things, but not needing to and getting past that. As JM very triumphantly says in the chorus…
Alive in the age of worry
Smile in the age of worry
Go wild in the age of worry
And say worry, why should I care
It seems like there’s no longer a need for John to worry. I’m assuming John had a period in which he worried about a lot of things he couldn’t control and this song was his way of putting those worries to rest. Maybe even the next step in moving forward with his own life. I could be off base here.
It’s the first single off Born & Raised and I personally love it. I’ve read that some people think the song is weak, they don’t love it and they wonder why it’s even a single. I know it’s received mix reactions at radio. I don’t personally understand that. If the complaint is that it doesn’t beat you over the head with catchiness, then maybe, but the lyrics and instrumentation are great. I think this was an excellent choice as an introduction into Born & Raised.
The snare drum crescendo at the beginning is a great way to begin the song. I love the chord changes and the pedal steel guitar part is very prominent. John really uses the Allman Brothers/George Harrison guitar harmonies to his advantage to give the song a memorable guitar tone. The guitar solo is very musical while pulling from his influences. The piano sounds good on this song, especially toward the end. If you look at the lyrics, it seems like this song is the next step after The Age of Worry.
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
Now I’m right here and I’m right now
And I’m open knowing somehow
That my shadow days are over
This is the first song on the album I think where John starts to open up and get incredibly personal with his audience. This song seems to be about coming to terms with past mistakes and owning up. Maybe John wants to move on while seeking repentance? I think John is hoping for and asking for forgiveness of some kind. I think John had some incidents in the last few years that he’s not proud of, yet he knows deep down he’s a good person. Who is John seeking repentance from (if he is seeking it)? Family? Friends? Fans? The media? An ex (since he does say “I never meant her harm”)? It’s interesting to ponder.
SPEAK FOR ME
My immediate thoughts about this song once the acoustic guitar opened the tune were that it sounded older than the prior tunes on this album. Queen of California sounded older, but not as old as this track. The song is very 70’s folk and it reminded me a lot of the bands America and Bread. The vocals sound really crisp and clear. There is a noticeable amount of falsetto in this song and it sounds amazing. The drums in this song are very subtle and fit in nicely in the background. I am pretty certain this song does not contain any electric guitar, similar to The Age of Worry.
John continues his trend of opening up on this record, but I think he digs even deeper here. What’s interesting with this song is that John opens and closes the song with the same 2 lines…
Now the cover of a Rolling Stone
Ain’t the cover of a Rolling Stone
John goes on further to say…
Well they’re celebrating broken things
I don’t want a world of broken things
You can tell that something isn’t right
When all your heroes are in black and white
Before John repeats the Rolling Stone line again toward the end of the song, he says…
I’m not mad about it
But I’m not mad about it
I’m not mad about it
But I’m not mad about it
The lyrics of this song aren’t straightforward in my opinion either. What I deduce, and I could be completely off base, is that John could be referring to his media popularity. He used to be on the cover of Rolling Stone and now he’s not. Maybe this song is about the idea of the media and certain haters wanting to build him up and tear him down, as evidenced by the line of, “Well they’re celebrating broken things / I don’t want a world of broken things.” Or maybe it’s about him being reflective of his past. The feeling of, “that was then, this is now.” Maybe John feels he still has his memory of yesterday, but that times have changed and they’re not coming back again. As I said, I’m not sure exactly what this song is about as it could be anything. It’s interesting to wonder!
SOMETHING LIKE OLIVIA
The opening of this song with the sole electric guitar immediately makes me think of Tracy Chapman’s Give Me One Reason, albeit this song has a faster tempo. I feel like the comparison is undeniable. I also can hear some Eric Clapton in this song. I think this tune is easily the most soulful one on the album with it’s bluesy guitar riffs and organ. The drum pattern is also very ear pleasing (drums were played on this track by the legendary session drummer Jim Keltner instead of Aaron Sterling). The electric guitar tone that John uses on this song I is different to most of the other tracks. It’s especially evident in the thoughtful solo that comes a little after the minute mark. Another thing I love about this tune is that toward the end of the song, it sounds like a jam that could just go on forever. I imagine this song would play very well live. I would also say that I think this tune is likely to be a single at some point.
I’m going to take a stab at this song and say there might be a girl John knows he may be or was crushing/lusting on. Just a guess based on…
Well Olivia is taken
But a look like hers can be found from time to time
Yeah Olivia is taken
But a look like hers can be found from time to time
I’m thinking something like Olivia is
What I need to find
“A look like hers” and “something like” to me suggests that this is not love or at the love stage. And that’s okay, it doesn’t have to be. It could potentially turn into love in the future if that’s what he’s hoping for. I do love the name “Olivia” as it’s interesting because it’s so few letters, yet it’s 4 syllables. Did you notice that “Olivia” also rhymes with the name “Lydia,” who was a prior female character John used in some of his earlier songs? I have no idea if there’s any correlation or if that that was intentional or not, I just wanted to point it out. I really enjoy the pleasantness of this song. It’s track placement in the sequence of the album is interesting. I’m undecided if it’s the best place to put this tune, but it does break up some of the melancholy and brings a more uplifting and hopeful tone to the album.
BORN AND RAISED
The song begins with an acoustic guitar intro with a harmonica part played by John himself and he does a nice job with that. Musically, I hear a lot of Neil Young in this song. I hear Young’s Cripple Creek Fairy in both this song as well as the Born and Raised (Reprise), which is a song I’ll discuss later. I also hear some of Neil Young’s Old Lonsesome Me in here too, which is maybe my personal favorite Neil Young song ever. This song has absolutely gorgeous harmonies from David Crosby and Graham Nash featured throughout. It leaves me wishing there was more harmonizing from these fine men on the rest of the record! There’s also a very nice but short organ solo later in the tune and musically the song has a nice build up.
As for the lyrics, this song gave me goosebumps. It’s very personal while being heartfelt and deep. The chorus itself is pretty evident of this…
Then all at once it gets hard to take
It gets hard to fake what I won’t be
‘Cause one of these days I’ll be
Born and raised
And it’s such a waste to grow up lonely
I’m guessing he’s speaking of his maturation as a person here. However, then he drops this bomb…
I still got time
I still got faith
I call on both of my brothers
I got a mom
I got a dad
But they do not have each other
Whoa. I believe John is first referring to the fact that he still has the opportunity to grow and mature as a person with the help and support of his brothers and family. A few years back, John’s parents divorced. He rightfully doesn’t talk about that often as it’s a private matter. For JM to mention that in a song is surprising. I don’t say that with any negativity, but rather, John has been more private with his personal life in recent times and he must have been in a certain place to have felt comfortable and confident enough to write about his parents. I admire and respect the heck out of it and am curious to know what the driving force behind that was.
John finishes this song with…
So line on up, and take your place
And show your face to the morning
‘Cause one of these days you’ll be
Born and Raised
And it all comes on without warning
The last line is really interesting to me. It seems as if John is saying he is being forced to grow up and mature whether he likes it or not. I get the sense that he is/was working on maturing, but not quite there yet.
IF I EVER GET AROUND TO LIVING
This song also starts off with an acoustic guitar before John’s vocals come in. What I love about this song are the really interesting and thoughtful chord changes, especially midway through the song. I also feel like the lap steel guitar is very effective here. Toward the end of the song, the percussion/drum patterns change. The song sounds so 70s. Maybe not as upbeat, but it sounds a little bit like Maria Muldaur’s Midnight at the Oasis, especially toward the middle of the song. It also reminds me a little bit musically of Neil Young’s Old Man too. Musically, the song is incredibly enjoyable. JM continues his use of personal lyrics in this song too.
Later in the song, John says…
Maybe it’s all a dream I’m having at seventeen
I don’t have tattoos
And very soon, mother will be calling me
Saying “Come upstairs, you got some work to do”
He goes on further to say…
You are hiding in your mind
Working all the time
Trying to make it better than you got it
And you are spending all your time
Searching for a sign
That’s never gonna look the way you want it
When you gonna wise up boy
Is this a continuation of John’s older song Home Life? Does John feel like he missed out on some of his youth with his tireless hard work and guitar practicing? Does he feel like he has dedicated his life to music and has not had enough time off to live? Does he feel like he lost out on his teenage years and his 20s? Is the “When you gonna wise up” a message to himself? Or is it coming from his mother? Is John ready to start living? Lots of hypothetical questions worth asking with no conclusive answers!
LOVE IS A VERB
My first initial thought about this song is that the electric guitar really adds a new element to it not present in the acoustic version JM previously performed. Once that sets in, a couple of things immediately come to mind for me musically. This song definitely reminds me of Slow Dancing in a Burning Room as I believe the chord progression is similar. Also, this song reminds me of Bonnie Raitt’s I Can’t Make You Love Me (Oddly enough, JM performed that song with Bonnie in 2003 and Don Was, who produced Born and Raised, is a longtime collaborator and producer of Bonnie’s) because the vibe and the tempo is similar.
The electric guitar effect is rooted in an electric organ (which JM has used before in the past), yet musically, the guitar riffs still sound in the vein of George Harrison. As the song moves on, there are very quiet, but good sounding technical guitar fills.
My personal favorite part of the song are the lyrics…
Love ain’t a crutch
It ain’t an excuse
No you can’t get through love
On just a pile of IOUs
As the song continues, and John gets to the lyric, “So you gotta show me,” he then repeats it. The first “show me” and all of the other odd numbered “show me” phrases have John singing in his normal voice, but the even number “show me” phrases are in a more subtle background voice. It’s as if John is questioning and answering himself and it sounds nice. If I had any gripe about this song, it’s that it’s too short. The song itself is gorgeous!
WALT GRACE’S SUBMARINE TEST, JANUARY 1967
I believe this song features the only horn part on this record. Chris Botti plays the trumpet intro while John plays the acoustic guitar underneath it. John described this song previously as a story he made up. My initial and current thoughts immediately were that it was reminiscent of The Beatles Eleanor Rigby. Not musically, but with the storytelling. Interestingly enough, Elanor Rigby was released in 1966, so maybe this song could have been a sequel of some kind? On the second listen, Walt Grace reminded me of the storytelling on Bob Dylan’s The Lonseome Death of Hattie Carroll (which came out in 1964).
The drum patterns Aaron Sterling plays are very “march” like. The piano sounds very fitting. The background harmonies sound very lush and likable. The vocal delivery itself is very unconventional for John and even the lyrics are wordier than normal for him, especially on this album. Yet, it works, and the song is really a gem. It’s just incredibly different for JM in every way possible, and in a good way!
Even though John said this story was made-up, one part that caught my attention happens later in the song where John sings…
One evening, when weeks had passed since his leaving
The call she planned on receiving
Finally made it home
She accepted the news she never expected
The operator connected the call from Tokyo
John has always had a fondness for Japan, so the mention of it is interesting. I think the song itself is about a guy who followed his muse in making this “submarine ride,” and despite people not believing in him, he made things happen and was successful. I don’t know if this is actually about John in some way, someone else he knows, or just complete fiction. Again, it’s a fabulous song. It’s unlike anything else on the record or that he’s ever done. I do wonder if it should have been a “B” side track though. Although it fits perfectly musically, I’m not sure it fits the theme of the album lyrically, but maybe I’m missing something.
WHISKEY, WHISKEY, WHISKEY
Initially, when I first heard this song, I didn’t care much for it. And it had 100% to do with the chorus. I’m going to flat out say, I just don’t like it. I don’t know what it is. I can even acknowledge the chorus is not out of place or anything, it just sounds off when it’s repeated (along with the water, water, water bit 8 different times throughout the song)! Taking the chorus out of the equation, it’s a fabulous tune. John mentioned it was 1 of the earliest written songs on the album.
The background harmonies are beautiful; the harmonica John plays in the intro of the song with the acoustic guitar grabs your attention when paired with the quieted electric guitar and piano. Later in the song, the music actually picks up and gets much louder and it demands your attention.
The lyrics are personal, heartfelt and glum. I felt it in the very first stanza…
Well we pick up in New York City
I’m trying to find the man I never got to be
But when I pushed down on the pavement
I found the whole thing so much harder than it seemed
Typing that doesn’t do it justice. You have to hear it to feel it. Living in New York City myself, it immediately pulled me in. The delivery is so poignant it just grabbed me. Even though this song comes later in the album sequence, it’s as if John was revisiting his past and reflecting on it. John says throughout the song…
It’s just a phase
It’s not forever
It’s just a phase
But I still might have a ways
That of course would suggest that he had work to do on himself. I also really felt what John was saying when he said…
Every night around this town
My friends and I we treat it like a race
But when I really start to break it down
I wouldn’t trust a girl who knew about this place
Walking home with no one left
Speak softly underneath my breath
Hey world, you ain’t see nothing yet
Great, now it’s raining
From what I can tell, and you can draw your own conclusions, these stanzas were a glimpse into the life JM used to live in NYC. And apparently, it was a lonely and somber one. It sounds like a life where John always had to think about what he would be doing next. This viewpoint is further solidified in the ending of the song…
Whiskey, whiskey, whiskey
Water, water, water, sleep
Dream somebody missed me
Wake up, shake it off and repeat
Whiskey, whiskey, whiskey
Wake me up and pour me in the street
I read that and I just feel terrible for the guy. It sounds like John hit or was writing from rock bottom. It sounds like he was miserable and just wanted to be with a woman who he could go home to and be with. Again, this tune is riveting and even though the chorus isn’t my favorite, I can look past it because the rest of the song is so deep and personal.
A FACE TO CALL HOME
I’m going to be straight up with you here and say I think this is my favorite song on the album. There are many brilliant facets of this song. First off, it combines a lot of musical genres and ideas and balls them up into one in a way I wouldn’t have expected. The intro with the guitar harmonies is very Allman Brothers/George Harrison. It sounds very 60s/70s with the faint violin in the background (Sara Watkins of Nickel Creek fame plays both the violin and sings background vocals). Once John starts singing, the song begins to sound a bit more current, but not too much. The lyrics remind me a lot of the way Bruce Springsteen wrote earlier in his career. Listen to the Born to Run record of his if you’re curious.
Toward the middle of the song, it becomes absolutely epic! Out of nowhere, the song has a breakdown that emulates Coldplay’s Fix You. The sound becomes loud and anthematic. The percussion/vocals/harmonies/guitar sounds all sound very Coldplay. It sounds absolutely amazing!
I think this is such an important musical moment in John’s career. He’s previously said that he’s wanted to create that “U2” and/or “Coldplay” sound, but he’s not been able to do it. He came semi-close on Battle Studies with Heartbreak Warfare in my opinion, but this time, he actually hit it out of the park. He captured the sound he had been trying to achieve for a long time and I couldn’t be happier for him. This song is huge, climatic and it fits so well within the album despite being different. To me, it’s the most magical moment of the record.
I think my favorite lyric of the song is…
Maybe I could stay a while
I’m talking like all of the time
So few words, but it’s clever and it says a lot. The rest of the lyrics in this song are great too, but I just really like that particular lyric.
BORN AND RAISED (REPRISE)
I love the Reprise for a lot of reasons. For starters, it pulls from a lot of different people I believe. Crosby/Stills Nash, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and the Allman Brothers. I also feel like I hear some of The Band and their tune The Weight in this song as well. It sounds very rootsy and even has ragtime elements in it. I’m just picturing a group of musicians sitting in close proximity of each other playing with some people clapping along. I mentioned this earlier about Walt Grace, but I’ve not heard JM sing and give a vocal delivery like this one before either. It’s different in a completely positive way. This is technically supposed to be the last song on the album and it’s very fitting.
He sings these lyrics…
Born and Raised
Locks of brown and streaks of gray
I was brought up in brighter days
It’s good to say
Now I’m born and raised
I read those lyrics as John has been through a lot and he’s getting older, but he’s grown up now. The very last lyric of the album is, “Now I’m born and raised.” Has John grown up? Is he past the phase(s)? Has he matured? It sounds like he’s saying he has. What a great way to end a fabulous album.
FOOL TO LOVE YOU (iTUNES ONLY BONUS TRACK)
This tune was originally supposed to be on the album, but John said it didn’t fit the sequencing, so it was pulled and made into an iTunes-only exclusive. Certain aspects of this song are actually similar to the Born & Raised Reprise. It opens with a harmonica, acoustic guitar and then the piano. The tempo is very slow and it also has that ragtime feel with a jazzy/blues vibe to it. This song has some handclaps in it that add to the overall vibe of the song too. My favorite lyric of this song is when John sings…
Fool Me Once
It’s shame on you
It’s shame on me
I don’t know why, but I just really like that lyric.
Overall, I think it is an amazing record. I think the clear theme of the record is the idea of growing up and maturing and the beautiful struggle in it all. I think it’s easily the most personal record John has written to date and it’s the most from the heart record he’s written to date as well in my opinion. This album is easily the most different sounding record John has put out to date. What else is interesting to me is that there aren’t a lot of ballads or songs rooted in relationships, songs relating to women, and the feelings toward them. John has never been a 1 dimensional songwriter, but his albums typically have more songs in the female department. This album, not so much. For the record, I love those older ballads and relationship songs, but this is a really nice change, honestly!
Born and Raised is not a country or folk record, but it has all of the influences present. I don’t know that there is a big single on this album and that’s fine by me. I’m much happier with a finished product that tells a story in a conceptual way like this record does. I’m more of an album guy than a single guy anyhow, so I’m more than content with this album. I do believe this record will turn off some current fans and that some people won’t like it, and that’s okay. By the same token, I fully expect John to pick up a lot of new fans. If you don’t like this album, there will be future records. Artists evolve and this album is 1 small mark on the JM career timeline. The next record may very well sound completely different to this one. Just relax, be patient, and enjoy the ride!
Whatever the case, I advise you to give the record several listens in its entirety before drawing any final conclusions. If you have done that and you don’t like it, that’s okay! John had wanted to make this record for a long time. He mentioned wanting to make an album like it after Heavier Things was finished and I do think when he recorded the song Tracing, that was the beginning of this sound for John. He went on to later record Stop this Train and Who Says, which were also rooted musically in this sound, so this side of JM was dying to get out!
I hope you’ve enjoyed my incredibly long review. I spent a considerable amount of time on it, much longer than I thought I would have, but I enjoyed writing it! I hope it tides you over until you can listen to the record on your own soon. Lastly, I’ll leave you with a question I asked JM several years ago…
Me: Every artist tends to plateau at some point in their career. How do you plan to avoid letting Continuum be your plateau
JM: Great question with a great answer for you. You just keep moving. I’m not going to make Continuum next because Continuum is done. I’ve never felt pressure. My next record is going to be recorded probably next fall, maybe next spring if I have time off. It’s going to be recorded in my house with a lot of piano, some slide guitar, almost like what you would consider a country record for me, but not country. A very organic, acoustic album with a lot of straight up chords. We’ll be just hanging out and everybody’s going to be able to play these songs. Very Bob Dylan-ish, Neil Young. That’s going to be my next record. It will be nothing like Continuum. [I] Don’t make Continuum again and that’s how no one will ever compare it to other albums. You just keep having different paintings each time out.
Okay, so JM decided to make Battle Studies first before he got to Born and Raised, but he eventually kept his word! And the way he described Born and Raised to me way back when was spot on. How cool is that?