My affinity for John Mayer’s music has always tied in to the fact that I feel the dude. His songwriting resonates with me. I remember the day I discovered Room for Squares, sometime in late 2001, sitting on the floor of the record store I was managing while construction workers buzzed around. “No Such Thing” and “Neon” immediately went into the store’s regular rotation, as I excitedly told customers about John Mayer (which I then pronounced the same way you pronounce Oscar Mayer.)

A decade and change later, there have been ups (Continuum won over almost every single one of my friends who made fun of me for liking the “Your Body is a Wonderland” guy) and there have been downs (the disappointing Battle Studies album.) John’s also (rightfully) caught a bit of flak for being a bit of a douche, making insensitive comments about the women he’s dated, and for making a couple of public faux pas that could be construed as racist. Ultimately, I have a long leash when it comes to people who do dumb shit occasionally-after all, we’re human. I was more disappointed in the diminishing quality of his music than I was in any of his public pronouncements.

So I approached the release of John’s fifth (or sixth, or seventh, depending on whether you count Try! or Inside Wants Out) album, Born And Raised, with trepidation. Would it continue the downward spiral? Or would it be a return to form?

Ladies and gentlemen, it’s really good to have John Mayer back.

I don’t know that Born And Raised will win over any detractors. It’s not an album that’s meant to bowl anyone over. But it is a consistent, entertaining listen. The production (provided by the legendary Don Was) is warm, sympathetic and more spare than on any previous Mayer album. Having suffered a little bit of backlash and given some time to lick his wounds, John’s songwriting has gone off autopilot and has regained it’s earnestness and humanity.

The nods to singer-songwriter rock of the early Seventies are evident from the first track. “Queen of California” references both Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, and Born And Raised does sound like a 21st century update of albums like Harvest and Blue. Hell, Graham Nash and David Crosby show up to add still-sterling (and immediately recognizable) background vocals to the album’s title track.

Lyrically, John’s still unsettled about many things. His self-doubt is probably one of the most endearing characteristics of his songwriting, and it’s evident whether he’s referencing his PR issues (“Speak for Me”), his relationship travails (“Shadow Days”), or his desire to meet a lover who isn’t part of the show business circle in “Whiskey, Whiskey, Whiskey.” Lyrically, Born And Raised is tinged with melancholy, but standout track “The Age of Worry” asks that we set our doubts aside and live in the moment, while “A Face to Call Home” imagines a man planning his future together with a partner despite only knowing her for a month.

Honest, sincere lyricism. Low-key, sympathetic production. Fantastic, yet subtle, instrumental performances. Born And Raised might be the first album of 2012 that I’ve been reluctant to stop playing on repeat. While John’s medical problems (and his reputation) may prevent this album from getting the full hearing it deserves, I advise you to throw your preconceptions out the window and enjoy what I consider to be the best album of 2012 so far. Call it a comeback.

Grade: A

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