Disclaimer: all my own opinions.
That being said, holy moly. I’ve had a month to take in JM’s new album, Born And Raised. This is a fine piece of work. Without a second glance it’s better than his last album, and might be reaching towards Continuum‘s level. Only time will tell.
What I love about the album is also what’s been annoying me: everybody is talking about him “going country.” This happened with Battle Studies, every review I read used the phrase “concept album” and it was not a concept album. Same with this one. This is not a country album. Sure it’s got some country flavor, but even more so, it’s got some folksy flavor. This isn’t a Brad Paisley record, it’s a modern Crosby, Stills, and Nash record. Exactly what I like. I think I’m just put off by the constant “going country” talk. The sole presence of a harmonica and slide guitar does not a country album make.
The reason I was so initially interested in this album’s direction is that I was hoping (and turned out to be exactly this) that it wouldn’t be a country album that John Mayer did, but more it would be a John Mayer album with a slightly country/folk vibe. I hate modern country music for a number of reasons. One of the biggest is that the singers might not all sound exactly alike, but they have the same twang in their voice. Country is a genre that is partly defined by how the singer sings. If the singer has that twang, you know you can find the album under the country genre in the iTunes store. Born And Raised is different because it’s an album that takes cues from country/western/folk music without adding that awful twang in the vocals. It’s John Mayer’s voice over a mellow, western musical vibe. Listening to it is almost a sad statement on the current state of country music, because this is how great country music could be if it was not created almost entirely by rednecks (again…subjective opinions).
Aside from the musical aspect, I’m going out on a limb and saying that JM has not stretched too far on this album. Let me be clear though, this is in no way a bad thing. Most music artists today have an intense need to adapt or die. Critics and the masses alike always want to hear/know that an artist is evolving. Nobody wants to hear a static musician. However, I feel that JM has bought himself decades worth of being relatively static. Here’s why. He is one of our culture’s artists that already stands head and shoulders above his peers. Nobody can write songs like this guy. There is real content on this album, songs that mean something. Songs that are about bigger themes that many people feel and that aren’t written about enough. Lyrically, this album is a continuation of the quality he has been putting out for 9 years. My favorite song on the album is the title track, for a few different reasons. Primarily, it’s meaningful. JM can capture the tear-inducing feelings about growing up and getting older that I feel but can never articulate well. You know that odd feeling of getting older alongside/parallel with your family, but seeing yourself grow apart from them or become a different person than they think you are? This song touches that idea. It’s like a thematic sequel to Stop This Train. Powerful writing that is increasingly rare in our culture.
Production is lush as ever, with help from Don Was, who apparently has produced major musicians’ twilight releases for the last 20 years. I don’t know what exactly sound engineer Chad Franscoviak does, but he’s done it on every JM album since Heavier Things and it is beautiful. JM’s recorded sound is so rich and smooth, and that comes from Chad in the sound booth. The dude is a genius.
Also making an appearance (and adding to the Americana feel of this album) are CSN alumni David Crosby and Graham Nash providing background vocals on the title track. They take an already killer track and turn it into this time-traveling beast of a folk song. Seriously, the song’s coda has their fingerprints all over it. Sounds like a CSN demo from Déjà Vu. JM could easily make a career of producing older musicians’ later releases. His collaborations are always spot on.
And while it sucks he can’t tour this album right away, this vocal problem has done him well. It paid off that he shut up for about 2 years. Technically, he sings in a lower register than his previous albums. It adds to the western feel of the record. Content-wise, it helps when he stays out of the media. Number 1 because he acts like a horse’s ass in public, and number 2 because it betters his writing so much when he is out of the spotlight. He said it himself when he left Twitter. Good art, especially writing, is done in way more than 140 characters. His last few years have really led well into this album.
So while my initial “awesome album” shock is over after a month, this record still holds up. It feels fluid and connected; a solid collection of tunes. I wish it didn’t take him 3 years to write and record each album, but if his albums are consistently this good, the wait is forgiven for one of our culture’s last musical hopes.