John Mayer: Born and Raised

John Mayer
Born and Raised
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

John Mayer approaches Born and Raised like a method actor, diving headfirst into his new sound — a mix of Laurel Canyon folk and California country-rock — by growing his hair into a shaggy 1970s mane, donning a cowboy hat, and surrounding himself with credible roots musicians like Sara Watkins (who plays fiddle on “A Face To Call Home”) and David Crosby (who, along with Graham Nash, adds thick vocal harmonies to the title track). “I’m looking for the sun that Neil Young hung after the gold rush of 1971,” goes a line in the very first song, and Mayer clings to that lyric like a mission statement, moving between softly-strummed acoustic ballads (“Whiskey, Whiskey, Whiskey”) and uptempo, easy-riding Allman Brothers tributes (“Queen of California”) like the music industry’s newest cosmic cowboy.

The playing is understated and predictably excellent, with layers of piano and pedal steel flanking Mayer’s guitar lines, and Don Was’ production sets the vintage mood perfectly. Some habits die hard, though, and “Something Like Olivia” finds Mayer crooning a string of come-ons to his newest celebrity crush, House star Olivia Wilde, proof that a cowboy hat only goes so far in erasing one’s status as a smarmy, self-crowned Don Juan. Wild West makeover be damned, this is still the same guy who dated a teenaged Taylor Swift, who aired Jennifer Anniston’s dirty laundry in a Playboy interview, who publicly described Jessica Simpson’s performance in the sack as “sexual napalm.” A handful of these dusty, sepia-toned songs are some of the best of his career, though, which makes Born and Raised a prime example of the John Mayer paradox — it’s good enough to satisfy even his most casual fans, but the old-school Mayerisms that remain will only anger his detractors.