John Mayer – Battle Studies

I’m often intrigued by the group think exhibited by music and movie critics — not so much in their appraisal of a new work but in the angle from which they approach it. The most recent example I’ve noticed is in the commentary on John Mayer’s new album, Battle Studies, which I’ve been enjoying for about a week now.

Almost every review I’ve read has made a point to comment on the dichotomy between Mayer’s public image (including a popular Twitter account, stand-up comedy routines and frequent appearances on tabloid covers with the likes of Jennifer Aniston and Jessica Simpson) and the low-key, earnest music he records.

I suppose that’s an obvious approach, as Mayer has been very much in the public eye during the three years since his last album, the wonderful Continuum. And the thoughtful romantic on his records bears little resemblance to the happy-go-lucky cad stalked by paparazzi. But still, it feels a bit suspicious, as if the record company dictates the storyline.

It irks me because those reviews wind up being about things other than the actual music, and that feels like a disservice. I suppose much of the fault lies with Mayer himself, who chooses to keep himself in the spotlight between albums. But he also manages to release strong material every few years, and I’ll try to concentrate on that.

Releasing a follow-up to Continuum was a thankless task. That album hit on every cylinder, bringing a new depth and sophistication to Mayer’s already stellar knack for a pop hook. It showcased his guitar virtuosity without veering into overkill and rewarded repeat listens. It was the ultimate tough act to follow.

And Battle Studies definitely suffers in that regard. Where Continuum felt like a big step up, this record feels like a step sideways, which is never as interesting. That said, it’s a strong collection of the sort of thing Mayer does very well: mid-tempo pop and blues with jazz flourishes and some fine guitar playing.

Mayer reminds me of a less pretentious, but also less adventurous, Sting. Both have raspy vocals that hint at bedroom eyes; both hone their songs in the studio into expertly layered soundscapes that tease with a little horn section here, a little string section there; both can write infectious singalong choruses in their sleep; and both can sometimes feel a little too safe and studied.

Battle Studies features all of those things, and its first five songs are classic John Mayer — expect to hear them invading the airways any day now. Opener ‘Heartbreak Warfare’ kicks off the love-as-battlefield metaphor that permeates the album with a guitar/bass lick straight out of U2’s playbook. ‘All We Ever Do is Say Goodbye’ is a slow acoustic burner guaranteed to make teenage girls (and boys) swoon.

One of the best songs on the album, the Fleetwood Mac-inspired ‘Half of My Heart,’ is billed as a duet with Taylor Swift but she sings only two lines, and as a backup vocalist. Probably some sort of record company agreement to capitalize on her popularity. Despite that head-scratcher, it’s a fabulously catchy tune about a man who can’t commit:

Half of my heart is a shotgun wedding to a bride with a paper ring
And half of my heart is the part of a man who’s never truly loved anything

First single ‘Who Says’ has gotten a lot of attention due to its opening line, “Who says I can’t get stoned?” I’m amazed at how many young fans are appalled that he would suggest such a thing. I don’t know if that’s a positive sign that the next generation is above casual drug use or a negative sign that they’re judgmental dweebs. Maybe somewhere in between. This non-drug user certainly doesn’t care if Mayer or anybody else gets stoned. And the song is a beauty, with a chorus that reminds me of Simon and Garfunkel for some reason (and lord knows they got stoned).

Side One (to the extent that there are “sides” anymore in the CD/iTunes era) ends with ‘Perfectly Lonely,’ an enjoyably bluesy stroll about the merits of single life.

It’s taken me a little longer to warm to Side Two, though I can already feel those songs seeping in. ‘Assassins’ is the most ambitious track on the album, a jazzy, experimental song about a stealthy lover who meets his match. ‘War of My Life’ and ‘Edge of Desire’ are contemplative ballads that weigh the album down a bit in its final third, but appreciated separately they are quite worthy. Two quick songs, ‘Do you Know Me’ and a groovy cover of Robert Johnson’s ‘Crossroads,’ flesh things out.

The album closes with one of my favorite tracks, ‘Friends, Lovers or Nothing,’ a soaring dismissal, tinged with sadness, of an ex who’s looking for a “friends with benefits” situation. I’ve read speculation that this was written about Jennifer Aniston, though I can’t imagine one wouldn’t be just fine with that sort of arrangement with her.

Well, I kept my promise to focus on the actual songs — perhaps to a fault. I look forward to a time when Mayer will be appreciated for his music and not his off-record antics. He has far more to offer the world through a guitar and a microphone than a Twitter account.

Half of My Heart:

Friends, Lovers or Nothing:

3 thoughts on “John Mayer – Battle Studies

  1. Amy says:

    Did Taylor Swift co-write the song on which she sings back up vocals? I thought I read that somewhere (probably from a comment he made on Twitter). In this morning’s Herald, Mayer was quoted saying how he has no problem compomising on his music if it enables him to reach a wider audience, as that is his main goal. I found it odd to see a musician be so candid about what could be viewed as a lack of artistic integrity (on the other hand, it speaks volumes about presenting your motives in authentic manner – Sting certainly would never admit to such a seemingly crass goal, but maybe that’s what makes you – and others – find him “pretentious”)

    I only know the Mayer songs that have been played endlessly on the radio; some of those I like quite a bit (“Your Body is a Wonderland” and “Waiting on the World to Change”) and one the drives me crazy (“Say What You Mean to Say” – but don’t say it 1000 times!!!) Adam Duritz may have dated just as many gorgeous actresses and may be equally communicative with his fans (albeit through a more eloquent blog rather than tweeting inane sentiments), but he’s never tortured me with a lyric the way Mayer tortures me with that one.

    Here is his exact quote from today’s paper (which is taking it from an interview with Details magazine): “I’m not exactly Bob Dylan. I’m already a pop musician – I want to reach as many people as possible. I don’t mind compromising.”

    So… while I find it difficult to read you comparing him to Sting, I’m pleased he is quick not to compare himself to Dylan, and both that fact, and your review, makes me want to hear more than just the tracks that find their way to the radio (though you say most of them ultimately will anyway).

  2. Clay says:

    Thanks for pointing me to that Details interview… just read it online. He wasn’t so much saying that he’s willing to compromise to reach a wider audience, but that “pop music” in general is a compromise as compared to music some people consider more pure. And I do like that attitude, though I think he’s more serious about his music than he lets on.

    I agree with you about ‘Say.’ I’m not sure why some writers insist on ruining songs through repetition. Something else he has in common with Sting (“together… we’ll be together tonight! ….”)

  3. Clay says:

    Swift didn’t co-write ‘Half of My Heart’ but after another listen, I can hear her singing throughout the song if I really strain.

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