John Mayer – Battle Studies: An Emotional Ride With Great Guitar
by Brian Willett
John Mayer takes a lot of flack, but despite all of the criticism, there’s one thing for certain – the man can write some quality songs. And he’s not exactly a slouch on the guitar either. For whatever reason, though, there’s still a general rule about being a John Mayer fan that seems to have taken hold in many musical circles: if you’re a guy, you can’t appreciate John Mayer. Or not publicly, at least. In fact, it seems that one solid way to confirm one’s masculinity is to express a deep-seated hatred for Mayer; the internet is loaded with blog posts and even entire web sites dedicated to just how terrible a songwriter and how inept a guitarist Mayer is. In a way, that might be expected, as no musician is going to be able to claim the entire world as fans. But what, exactly, Mayer did to enrage so many is a bit of a mystery.
It’s possible that Mayer’s latest release, Battle Studies, will soothe the haters and lull them into a state of fandom. However, I suspect it’s more likely to fan the flames further, as Battle Studies is loaded with the sounds that some love and some love to hate – smooth ballads, blues-tinged guitar and soft crooning.
The tone of the record, an introspective look at failed relationships, is set early, as the opener, “Heartbreak Warfare,” casts breaking up as a battle; not an inaccurate scenario. And while the “love is war” metaphor may seem as though it’s too old and cliche, Mayer breathes new life into it, softly singing, “Lightning strike, inside my chest to keep me up at night…Clouds of sulfur in the air, bombs are falling everywhere, it’s heartbreak warfare. Once you want it to begin, no one really ever wins.” While such lines may border on corny, Mayer’s conservative delivery offers the requisite emotion without going over the top. Mayer keeps the guitar to a minimum for most of this track, as it is driven by percussion and studio effects, although some soft picking can be heard between verses. However, he does whip out a soulful solo toward the tail end of the track before musing, “How come the only way to know how high you get me is to see how far I fall?”
The next track, “All We Ever Do is Say Goodbye,” continues the pity parade, although this one begins with some softly strummed acoustic guitar, and Mayer doesn’t waste time flexing his falsetto. Mayer does have a way with words though, singing “I bought a ticket on a plane, and by the time it landed you were gone again. I love you more than songs can say, but I can’t keep running after yesterday.” Again, these lines might induce a rolling of the eyes from anyone else, but Mayer manages to sound soulful and sincere, and another smooth solo doesn’t hurt the effort.
In “Half of My Heart,” Mayer picks up the beat a bit, but he doesn’t sacrifice the song-writing at all; the vocal melody in the verse is thoughtfully composed and very catchy. Lyrically, the song focuses on the struggle to just say no when one isn’t completely committed. While the song consists mostly of acoustic guitar, there is a neat little electric riff thrown in at the end of each chorus. Fans of the sickly-sweet pop icon Taylor Swift will be happy to hear her contribute a few lines in this one, and the duo works well for the brief moments they harmonize.
“Who Says,” the next track, finds Mayer in a defiant mood, offering lines such as “Who says I can’t be free from all of the things I used to be? Rewrite my history, who says I can’t be free?” over some softly picked acoustic guitar. The singer shows a deceptive side, also musing that he can “call up a girl I used to know, fake love for an hour or so.” There is also a theme of being tour-weary, as Mayer name-checks destinations such as New York City and Baton Rouge, admitting that “it’s been a long night” in each place. While this song isn’t bad, it fails to stand up to the quality of the tracks that preceded it.
In “Perfectly Lonely,” Mayer leads off with some electric guitar for a change, letting his fingers dance across the fret board, bending notes like a seasoned blues pro. After letting his guitar do the talking, he expresses the joy of being unfettered by romance, singing, “Tore out my heart and shut it down…nothing to do, nowhere to be, a simple little kind of free…no one but me, that’s all I need.” Mayer also adds a few slick guitar lines before each verse, which helps make his straining falsetto more acceptable; after all, if he has enough skill on guitar, how bad can the guy be? Seemingly attempting to answer that question, Mayer tears into a juicy guitar solo at the three-minute mark before carrying the song to its conclusion on the wings of the chorus.
The next track, “Assassin,” is undoubtedly one of the album’s best. The song begins with an air of mystery, with just some earthy percussion and back up vocals accompanying Mayer’s smooth, almost seductive voice. The song effectively builds momentum, as Mayer slides through two verses before offering the catchy chorus, bringing in some guitar and singing, “I’m an assassin and I had a job to do, little did I know that girl was an assassin too.” Although such lines in the chorus may bring to mind memories of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie in “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” any humor is wiped away when the brief solo breaks in, as it shows Mayer is serious about his music.
“Crossroads” at irst seems a bit out of place, breaking in with a funky beat and a repeating guitar riff and some monotone singing from Mayer. The riff is somewhat reminiscent of Jeff Beck, and once Mayer launches into a bluesy solo section, the influence becomes more evident. The interlude is also refreshing as it is the first time Mayer allows himself to break free of his short soloing leash and plays freely for more than half a minute.
The next song, “War of My Life,” is a bit slower and fairly forgettable, although some interesting guitar will peak listeners’ interest toward the tail end of the track. However, it’s largely a mediocre affair up to that point, and it’s nothing to rave about.
“Edge of Desire” is similarly weak, although the vocal melody is interesting; at times, however, Mayer sounds as if he’s straining even though the notes are well within his range. Again, the saving grace of the song comes in the form of an emotional, bluesy guitar solo hiding in the latter half of the track, and the song seems to gain momentum from the solo, rising to a soaring finish.
The following song, “Do You Know Me,” offers some very restrained singing and picking, as though Mayer wanted to revert himself back to the singer-songwriter in a coffee shop mode. It’s not unlistenable, but it’s nothing worth writing home about either.
The album closes with “Friends, Lovers or Nothing,” in which Mayer tackles the age-old dilemma of whether two people can really be friends after a break up. Mayer offers the ultimatum, “Friends, lovers or nothing” before warning that “there will never be an in between, so give it up.” The electric guitar skills that had been hiding during the previous track emerge again with some nice hooks here and there while Mayer sings about the difficulties of resisting invitations from an ex that is “two drinks in.” A brief, soulful solo completes this track, and some tasteful horns appear toward the end as well, although the sound does less to impress than it does to make one wonder why bass wasn’t used more on the album.
Battle Studies is nothing spectacular, but it does have several great songs deserving of serious airplay, whether on the radio or behind the locked door of a macho man/closet Mayer fan. The range of offerings isn’t incredibly wide, and the tracks at the beginning are more impressive than those at the end, but this is far from a disappointing effort.