Even John Mayer didn't like John Mayer for a while there, and who could blame him: all that blather about his exes (Jennifer Aniston, Jessica Simpson, Taylor Swift) plus a racially charged interview with Playboy magazine. So Guitar Boy grew a beard, bought a cowboy hat, ditched Twitter and then wanderlusted into the desert for a few soul-searching years.
Mayer went all Kung Fu on us. And you know what? It worked.
His new album — nay, his new mea culpa — is called Born and Raised, a '70s-retro rumination that has almost nothing to do with glossy pop hits and O-faced guitar solos. This is a late-night, coyote-howl affair, a bid to be forgiven for his sins and accepted as a serious artist. It'll be interesting to see if his swooning female fan base bats its collective lashes at such neo-cowboy rambles as Walt Grace's Submarine Test, January 1967, which is not exactly the come-on of Your Body Is a Wonderland.
Of course, those same giggly fans might stick around, if only to play the "Is this one about Taylor?" game. People will be digging for clues all over Born and Raised. The cathartic folk-pop of first single Shadow Days is already being deemed the "Aniston song:" "I ain't no troublemaker and I never meant her harm." Mayer isn't giving up the song's source, but it sure sounds like an apology to all his paramours, famous and otherwise.
Such old-school folk-poppers as David Crosby and Graham Nash, plus Allman Brothers keyboardist Chuck Leavell, stop by to help give Mayer that sun-dappled '70s-radio vibe. Many of the new songs may sound like sing-along "soft hits," pure SoCal gold, but this isn't Seals and Crofts fluff, mind you. Mayer, 34, has always been a prodigiously gifted musician; his baroque playing on the new Speak for Me is a lovely flurry of tricky notes. But for the first time, his lyrics are just as rich. He finally seems to mean what he's singing in that slightly gruff croon, a voice that has no right going high but does so anyway.
Part of Mayer's newfound introspection might have to do with the removal of a granuloma just above his vocal cord. Maybe he realized his time is not limitless, that calling Jessica Simpson "sexual napalm" is merely wasting resources. Me? I believe the change. On Queen of California, he references Bob Dylan, Neil Young and his latest spirit guide: "Joni wrote Blue in her house by the sea / I gotta believe there's another color waiting on me / To set me free." Two years ago, John Mayer would have used a good line like that to seduce and destroy. The "new" John Mayer seems to be talking to himself.
Sean can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter and facebook.com/seandaly.tampabay.