John Mayer - Battle Studies
Record Label: Aware/Columbia
Release Date: Nov. 17, 2009
These days separating John Mayer the musician from John Mayer the celebrity is quite a chore. Since the release of his major label debut Room for Squares, the New York-based songwriter has had dalliances linked to actress Jennifer Love Hewitt, singer/actress Jessica Simpson, actress Minka Kelly and most notably A-list actor Jennifer Anniston. The latter coupling has kept Mayer at the forefront of the public eye for the better part of the last two years and made him a household name for various tabloids, TV shows and the like.
But his romances alone aren't the only reason Mayer seems to attract a buzz with whatever he does. With a self-deprecating, borderline egocentric manner, the singer has to date, posted an incessant and endless amount of nonsensical tweets and YouTube videos putting him squarely in the heart of the blogosphere. He's also penned various columns for Esquire; and pulled off a much-publicized sartorial atrocity onboard his Mayercraft cruise. To put it simply, he's a long way from his days playing coffeehouses in Atlanta.
As a musician however he has amassed a whopping seven Grammy Awards, all before the age of 33 and has landed considerable success with his three studio albums, all of which have gone two-times platinum or better. So it comes with much hope, excitement and trepidation that Battle Studies is released to the world. From the album artwork to the concise track listing, everything about Battle Studies seems to hearken back to a bygone era. Sure, there's a firm grasp on modern trends, but most of this disc is eerily reminiscent of the singer-songwriter fare from the 1970s.
The album's opening number "Heartbreak Warfare," is arguably the most complete and most engaging song of his career. Referencing a late night fight fueled by red wine and Ambien, it chronicles the difficulties of romance in such an honest and normal manner, as if to prove that despite his celebrity, he truly is just an average guy, with all the same struggles and difficulties as the rest of us. Smoky, gauzy and buttressed by light falsetto, "Heartbreak Warfare," is a powerhouse. In an odd move, a ballad, "All We Ever Do is Say Goodbye," follows and its a sprawling work aided by a somber piano, lilting guitar line and an undeniably crestfallen Mayer, who sings with as much conviction and clarity as any point in his career.
In an effort to lighten the mood, the playful Half of My Heart," appears next and its an ode to the sunny California rock of the 1970s. Beginning with the confession, "I was born in the arms of imaginary friends," the song bounces along in an airy, carefree manner as he wrestles with the idea of giving his whole heart to a woman. Country-pop superstar Taylor Swift dives into the mix at the two minute mark to enhance the chorus and offers some cooing at the song's conclusion. Insofar as tempo, it's one of the album's more upbeat numbers and easily one of the most indelible. A long shelf-life at radio seems to be a foregone conclusion.
Lead single "Who Says," is a cerebral, slightly symphonic meditation about personal freedom and being true to oneself. And while Mayer ardently admits the line "Who says I can't get stoned?" has little to do with marijuana, the confession seems to be more of a public service to save face than a ruminative declaration about life in general. While there is a pronounced maturity in the song's tone, aided mostly by a steely piano and his assured vocal clarity, the song doesn't exactly do much in the way of sophistication. The song seems in part like a cousin to his last single, the Bucket List soundtrack song, “Say,” which of course posits the question, who exactly is John Mayer? Is he a new generation blues man with a penchant for acoustic pop, or is he still that same Atlanta coffeehouse singer/songwriter from the late 90s?
Mayer answers the question exquisitely on "Perfectly Lonely," a song which once again seems firmly rooted in the trappings of the late 70s/early 80s classic pop arrangements. Having gone on record as admitting that the album was going to be incisive, from-the-gut and simplistic, "Perfectly Lonely," is one of the disc's best examples of those ambitions. An organ flourish towards the end helps bolster the argument that Battle Studies begins with five utterly irresistible pop gems.
And then things get a bit muddled.
On the cinematic and creepy "Assassin," he crafts a sexy number with a sensual movement, terrific verses and an inspiring bridge. The only problem is the chorus is too busy and the entire exercise feels a bit heavy-handed. Aided by a blazing guitar solo, it's sonically one of the album's densest and most visceral, but in terms of impact it falls a bit short.
Rather wantonly, he tackles the Robert Johnson blues staple "Crossroads," in a manner not unlike Eric Clapton and Cream, and while drummer/producer Steve Jordan offers some funky drumming and Mayer sets fire to his guitar, the entire effort feels far too self-indulgent and askew. With a running time of less than three minutes it's not exactly a major disappointment, but one would hope the disc would have had something of more substance to counter the lackluster "Assassin."
Thankfully three of the last four efforts on Battle Studies are stirring and resounding works that cement the album as something truly special. The sangfroid "War of My Life," has been described by Mayer as this album's "Gravity" and its smooth, easy-to-please vibe makes for one of his most supple and tender ballads to date. Supported by a warm and rich vocal timbre, "War of My Life," perfectly executes the inherent need for solace, support and security in battling life's maladies.
"Edge of Desire," features circular guitarwork and a layered arrangement as his sultry vocals gives into lust in a rhythmic and dense epic that's confident, passionate and strong. The penultimate offering "Do You Know Me?" is a bit too twee and even with a resonant guitalele it's not exactly one of the album's peaks. Having admitted he wrote the song in an hour, it's proof positive of just how naturally Mayer can write amiable pop melodies. The album rests on the cerebral, "Friends, Lovers or Nothing," a reaching piano ballad that bookends the disc effectively and ties up the entire effort with pointed simplicity, sterling grace and soaring honesty.
Mayer and producing partner Jordan penned the disc in the hopes of making a straightforward album that was bare-bones, authentic and accessible. From start to finish, Battle Studies is exactly that. Now four albums into a much celebrated career, Mayer is indeed writing circles around his competition. Few if any are at his caliber and his Grammy wins are proof of this. Battle Studies extends that argument.
Coherent, concise and intricately crafted, this is an album that is certain to make others try harder and is most definitely an effort that will inspire others further on down the line. Equal parts an extension and a detour from Continuum, the anthology digs a bit deeper, mining difficult emotional territory in a manner that makes for an absolutely resplendent listen. The bar has once again been set and Mayer, even with his larger-than-life celebrity persona, seems well on his way to garnering a couple more Grammys later this winter.
I've always enjoyed Mayer and have everything he has done, as does my father. This is a really well executed pop CD or whatever you want to classify it as. One day I hope he will build on his bluesy side but this will definitely do. I actually like this a lot more than I thought I would.