John Mayer - Battle Studies
Record Label: Columbia
Release Date: November 17, 2009
In 1955, Frank Sinatra released In the Wee Small Hours, one of the most critically lauded concept albums of our time. The theme was simple: heartbreak. Ol’ Blue Eyes took the listener through sixteen tracks of melancholy, lonely and desolate standards, a personal reflection on the heartbreak of his doomed love affair with actress Ava Gardner. His strong and deep voice sang with precision and pain, living the songs for his listeners.
While not quite as groundbreaking as Sinatra’s ’55 classic, John Mayer’s Battle Studies tackles similar themes of lost love and loneliness: “the album…incorporates a lot of the lessons, a lot of the observations, and a little bit of advice. Like a handbook, like a heartbreak handbook.”
Opening track “Heartbreak Warfare” fades in deceivingly with the sound of an orchestra tuning up before settling into a soft, almost atmospheric mid-tempo arrangement. Get used to that, because the majority of Battle Studies’ tracks possess similar traits. Gone is the wail of Continuum; these songs are slower, softer, and sadder than most anything Mayer has written. The song continues along contentedly with very light vocals growing stronger until the crescendo, when we’re reminded that our singer does have a voice comfortable with forceful singing. Later tracks showcase the improvement that Mayer’s made over the years.
Now, Mayer’s never been the strongest lyricist, but most blues musicians rely on simple similes and his are usually a bit more perceptive than the norm. However, the blunt nature of most of the album’s lyrics must have given John a false sense of security, and the writing suffers. “I was born in the arms of imaginary friends” is probably the strongest lyric on the album, and falls short of some insightful metaphors on his previous efforts. [Note: I don’t ever want to hear John Mayer sing about “shotgun weddings” again. Remove that phrase from your lexicon, John.]
The most questionable element of these songs is their notably absent guitar, compared with the trademark in-your-face blues riffing we have grown accustomed to over the last five years. Most tracks find Mayer delegating his guitar to acoustic finger picking and small background riffs mixed cleverly into the backing tracks. Aside from some small solos in the lively, horn-filled “Perfectly Lonely” and the Clapton-esque cover “Crossroads,” we’re not given much improv from the talented guitarist, which will be a definite problem for many Continuum fans. Instead, the guitar sings for John, with simple melodies that complement each song perfectly and leave the listener thirsty for more.
In a way, the minimalist guitar work highlights the album’s success: the obvious thought about each and every second of the album. Production-wise, it is near perfect, with everything mixed to give Mayer’s sweet voice room to shine, “ohhhs” and “ahhhs” creating lush layers around the crisp guitars, drums, bass, and horns. John is clearly the focus here, a goal especially evident in future single “Half of My Heart,” a duet with pop superstar Taylor Swift that shoves her pretty voice into low backing vocals for most of the song, allowing it to meagerly emerge on an ending chorus.
Without extended jams like “Gravity” or “Vultures”, Battle Studies is not the blues album of the year, but it might be the pop/rock album of the year. John’s obvious heartbreak takes new life in these sad arrangements, and creates a beautiful, cohesive, and yes, melancholy, album. And while I hope that Mayer gets over his losses soon and goes back to happy-go-lucky blues (if that’s possible), Battle Studies is a thoroughly impressive work that any musician could aspire to.
Die-Hard Mayer fan here and I thought Continuum was really really boring. Glad to hear this album. Heavier Things is still the best in my opinion, especially when talking about lyrics and and ideas behind the songs.
i agree, i think mayer is a great lyricist. he lyrics come off as mainstream and cliche but they have a lot of depth
I agree. I think that even looking at "Who Says" one will see that there is a lot of depth and meaning behind the lyrics. The song's not about smoking, but rather living one's life under the scrutinizing lens of the media and the public. I don't even like the song, but I think the lyrics are deeper than people give them credit for.