Forgive me, but this may take a minute.
I don’t squeeze well. Like between things, I mean. I always think I can fit through a space and then realize, as I’m knocking someone forward in their chair or spilling something, that I was never going to fit. I only realize I was never going to fit once I’m stuck. So when I listened to the new John Mayer album I thought of me stuck between a chair and a wall. He thought he could fit in a narrow space between folk or country and teen-crooning-pop, and he got stuck. The album tries to venture into country—maybe because he got into a country girl last year—but he’s stuck between two hard things and isn’t emerging anytime soon. He seems to have found a hat somewhere, too. And a hat, everyone knows, always makes things worse. The album was free to listen to on iTunes the week before its release, which is smart because people click free things. But for some reason media on his website was protected, the new songs locked, like he realized he had made a mistake and only wanted to share the work with his mom. But now it’s out. On Spotify. In the ether. And now that I’ve had a chance to listen to the entire thing, I wish I hadn’t.
“Shadow Days” opens, “Did you ever know you could be wrong and swear you’re right?” Nope. Thanks, John. “Shadow Days”—alternately titled “The Pain of Pop Fame”—is a shallow piece about how tough it is being famous. “If I Ever Get To Living” is, I suppose, about how he would live if he could ever stop being famous. And “Love is a Verb” is a rather enlightening poem about one’s inability to hold love—”it ain’t a thing”—because it’s a verb.
An MTV article about the album release party said Neil Young songs were played before Mayer’s album debuted. Which is equivalent to me hiding four pages of a rejected short story inside All The Pretty Horses and hoping the reader doesn’t notice when midway through that love scene in the barn the prose turns toward something disjointed and overreaching. Neil Young leading into Mayer, or McCarthy before me, is a sprint that ends horribly when the runner fails to note an approaching curb. Mayer also mentions Young in the opening track, “Queen of California”, as if to say to Young’s aging fan base, “Look at me. Not you. You, the senile ones. I’m like him. Look at my hat!”
“Whiskey, Whiskey, Whiskey.” No, seriously. Now. Whiskey. Please.
“Hey world, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Great, now it’s raining.”
Mayer misses on a number of things but one whiff is impossible to avoid. There is no Issue in the entire album. No pain. No turmoil. Nothing beyond pop frustration. And folk music needs issues. It is issues. Young had a few, to say the least. And the fact that Mayer wrote a “folky” album without addressing a single contemporary struggle shows, far more clearly than “The Pain of Pop Fame”, that he lacks any grasp on what this art, more specifically the genre of music he waded into, is about. Pick a problem. One of ours. And write a song. This music at its very core is not a sound , it’s content.
Born and Raised is a funeral. A funeral for which an elaborate box was constructed, a hole was dug, people were invited, flowers were picked, and then, as the service began, the crowd watched as a noticeably empty box was lowered into the earth. Everyone then left dressed in black wondering what the point of the whole endeavor was.
Album Born and Raised released May 22, 2012.
Image of Mayer In Hat courtesy of iTunes.
Postscript. Early one morning in Boone as the sun began to kiss the neck of a mountain behind King Street, John Posey, one of the better souls I know, lowered a Budweiser from his lip and said, “Fuck The Eagles.” I only learned what he meant when I first heard an album like this. Even a truly happy person hates once in a while. And if your hate only gets out to stretch when you hear some bad music, you’re doing okay.