Sunday, June 10, 2012

"Born And Raised," by John Mayer

For my birthday this year, my partner, Kristina, indulged my inner (and outer) music geek and took me to Laurel Canyon in Hollywood to visit the birthplace of so many classic rock and roll songs. If you’re unfamiliar with its history, Laurel Canyon was to the late 1960’s and early 1970’s what Paris, France was to 1920’s: a denizen of era-defining young artists of the time. Crosby, Stills, and Nash first joined talents there after singing together in a Canyon living room, Mama Cass held court and served as concierge in those sacred hills, Neil Young haunted the Canyon, Carole King paved the way for women singer-songwriters in the storied neighborhood, and comrade-citizen, Joni Mitchell, devoted an entire album to the circuitous Canyon roads in her far-out 1970 effort, Ladies Of The Canyon, which contains some of her finest songs, including “Conversation,” “Big Yellow Taxi,” “The Circle Game,” and perhaps the song that best captured the Zeitgeist of the era, “Woodstock,” a #11 hit for Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young on their 1970 album, the sublime, Déjà Vu.

Fast forward over 40 years later, and pop music still draws from this mythical rock and roll neighborhood - as it should. In the last few years, in fact, dozens of albums have paid homage to this remarkable location in popular music. To wit, tribute albums of the eon have been produced by the likes of Josh Rouse, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Wilson Phillips (Admit it. You bought their ear-candied first album, too), and even a not-horrible tribute by actress, Rita Wilson. In addition, up-and-coming British artist (and my current favorite singer), Rumer, is building a career adulating similar artists of the period, most notably echoing Karen Carpenter with her two studio albums and side project, fronting for the retro-pop of “Stereo Venus,” whose debut album, Close To The Sun, is well-worth seeking out if you’re a fan of early 1970’s psychedelic pop.

Following the trend, John Mayer’s latest collection of new songs references this eternal fount of sweet inspiration: Laurel Canyon, 1971. The album’s artwork mirrors Neil Young’s Harvest and gives a hint to what awaits the listener, and “Queen Of California,” the set's opening track, lays the groove for the album, with a note-for-note recreation of the Laurel Canyon vibe. This song, with its unplugged, acoustic setting and laid-back lyric about Joni Mitchell’s heartbreaking album, Blue, could have resided on any 12” vinyl from that great era. In fact, the soft-rock fabric of Born And Raised is powered by Neil Young’s 1971 guitar (and hat and boots), Joni Mitchell’s word poetry, and the letdown from the late-1960’s, when young idealists recovered from a hangover of too much freedom, not enough discipline, and questionable life choices - a botched attempt at hippie utopia. I guess it was just a dream some of them had.

While garnering generally positive reviews, one writer critiqued Born And Raised as Mayer’s unbridled solipsism, but just like my favorite albums from the Canyon in the early 1970’s, that’s my favorite part of this remarkable scrapbook of songs. My philosophy regarding the role of pop music (and art in general), is that it’s the artist’s responsibility to convey the unuttered feelings of the observer, or in Mayer’s words, to “speak for me.” I posit that it’s not only the artist’s job to speak for us, but it’s also what we fans yearn for. It’s why we slide our credit card through the reader at the record store or why we click “download” on iTunes. I think David Gates described it best when he sang, “…you want to get the meaning out of each and every song; then you find yourself a message and some words to call your own and take them home.”

My favorite track is the title song, “Born And Raised,” which features angelic harmonies by David Crosby and Graham Nash (of course!), and finds the tabloid-riddled artist applying balm to his “quarter life crisis” with a dose of thirty-something maturity. In revealing intimate details of his own life (i.e., his parents’ recent divorce, his stupid mouth, his numerous cringe-inducing tweets, etc.) Mayer is giving voice to a generation of emerging adults navigating the coming-of-age process in the era of social media and public meltdowns. Andy Warhol’s notorious 15 minutes of fame prediction brought to life. From this perspective, Mayer’s album is nothing short of a public service. Teenagers, take notes!