John Mayer - Battle Studies
Dan Round 07/01/2010
With three solo albums under his belt in addition to live material from his 'Trio', John Mayer has received masses of exposure in the US - the album “Heavier Things” shot to number 1 in the US in September 2003, his arena-filling shows have been instant sell-outs, while his celebrity status has been well established over the past number of years thanks to many high profile 'acquaintances'. By 2009 his stature was so great he made an appearance at Michael Jackson's memorial service, performing a moving version of “Human Nature” to millions across the world. However, while for many artists success in the States often equates to a similar level of success in the UK, our fair shores have thus far largely ignored Mayer's acoustic balladry and contemporary blues styling of pop. Until this record, Mayer's best fortune in the UK had been a lowly number 46 on the album charts for “Continuum” in 2006, with his previous albums managing even smaller inroads into the British musical consciousness. His homeland success may not translate over here for quite some time to come too, with latest album “Battle Studies” seemingly intent on showing a more stripped down side to Mayer, with less of the poppy frills of his other, more commercial sounding studio albums.
Though “Battle Studies” is very much in the mould of AOR artists such as Tom Petty and Fleetwood Mac - as well as the sunny, west coast 70s rock that so heavily influences the record's sound - the first track is more of an ambient affair, altogether different to the style of the rest of the record. Opener “Heartbreak Warfare” (also the second single to be lifted from the album) possesses an ice cool, lush sound with chiming arrangements and a soothing vocal. Despite its viability as ambient background music, it does nothing to grab the attention of the listener as the first track of the album or as a single. Striking the listener as more of an album track than a single release, it resists the big impact most album openers and singles benefit from, passing by in an easily forgettable, almost shruggish manner. The subdued, conventional Mayer ballad “All We Ever Do is Say Goodbye” does little to boost the tempo - swooning vocals, gentle acoustics, subtle background strings and keys - while the following duet with country gal Taylor Swift, “Half Of My Heart”, is one of the dullest things on the record. Less of a shared lead vocal, the static voice of Swift simply provides backing for Mayer, who rolls steadily over cautious country guitars. Mayer spits the same kind of clichéd and unimaginative lyrics those familiar with his work will already be all too aware of (amongst the mushy sentiments - “You will hate that I never gave more to you than half of my heart/But I can't stop loving you”).
It isn't until four songs in that the album really picks up in pace and quality. Lead single “Who Says” is one of the best things on the album, a catchy piece of folk-pop that is more in the style of Mayer's early acoustic material. Though downbeat in tone, it is actually the most light hearted and fun thing on the record, with Mayer's repeated quip “Who says I can't get stoned?” leading a barrage of rhetorical questions and spritely musings. Complete with brightly picked acoustic strings and a strangely uplifting chorus (“I don't remember you looking any better/But then again I don't remember you”), “Who Says” is a highlight of “Battle Studies”, and a solid choice of first single. The album's peak period is continued with another of its best moments coming with “Perfectly Lonely”. Typically laid-back, it nevertheless surpasses the other more passive moments on the album with catchy hooks, a cheeky melody and brilliant vocals from Mayer who swoons emphatically high and low over aching, stop-start guitars. Though once again the lyrics read like primary school poetry, furthering the idea that John Mayer really is a bit of a wet (wishy-washy lines such as “I have to thank the wrongs/That led me to a love so strong” - blahhh…), it does little to detract from the soothing calm Mayer crafts oh so well. On track 6 “Assassin”, Mayer effectively takes the album in a different direction with intricate instrumental details replacing the more guitar reliant, usual formula. The following Robert Johnson cover “Crossroads” once more highlights Mayer's musical prowess and technical talent, with the maverick Mayer reworking Johnson's song from a traditional Delta blues number into a guitar heavy slice of funk rock. With fuzzy dirt riffs, a buzzing rhythm, and a vocal rasp that Mayer would have been wise to apply more sparingly across the record, “Crossroads” makes for a brilliant cover. It extends the theory that Mayer's covers - all vastly different to the originals, well thought out, invariably with Mayer's sound stamped firmly into the song - are actually superior to his own songs. (Give a listen to his compulsive covers of “Bold as Love”, “Lenny” and “Free Fallin”, as well as his version of “Kid A” - probably the only Radiohead cover worth giving any time to).
After the cover, however, the album looses the quality of tracks 4-7 as it droops down from the highs of the middle songs. “War of My Life” and “Edge of Desire” are largely forgettable, hazy blurs. The former is a rather boring soft piece with Mayer at his most tepid and uninspired, while the latter is Mayer's well practised Springsteen impression, a tedious 5-and-a-half minute attempt at grandeur (an 'epic' climax with wailing guitars, big vocals, emotive soundbites, etc.). “Do You Know Me”, at just 2-and-a-half minutes, is better - like “Who Says”, it sees Mayer stripped down to acoustics and little else (a few delicate strings), and it proves he is at his best when staying well away from stadium-style theatrics and the over-complication he is so susceptible to. It is the prettiest little song on the album, yet also the least tampered with… perhaps something the singer-songwriter will take note of when he steps back into the studio for LP#5. The final “Friends, Lovers or Nothing” is a good closing song - clearly conceived to be an album/concert closer - but nevertheless, it doesn't restore “Battle Studies” to the peak of its middle section. A piano-laden lament with Mayer's voice at its very sweetest, it is the longest song on the record at just under 6 minutes - but it doesn't drag like “Edge of Desire”. Culminating in a gospel harmony, it brings a calming close to an album in which John Mayer once again clearly showcases his raw musical talent, but also appears to struggle at times in changing direction and adapting his sound. More worryingly, four albums in and Mayer is still toying around with cheesy lyrics and the same old, unconvincing universal themes of love - frustratingly leaving his music seldom complemented - while lacking the necessary bite and edge to be able to step outside the limited bubble of US success.
If only the likes of “Who Says” and “Perfectly Lonely” could be on an album with songs of equal calibre… if only “Battle Studies” contained the type of character that Mayer's private life suggests is eagerly bubbling under the guitar-pinup, Hollywood-smile surface…