Music Review: John Mayer’s “Battle Studies” (2009)

RATING:  3 / 5 stars

By Chris Moore:

As John Mayer explained in a recent interview, his new studio album is an exploration of the more violent side of a romantic relationship – thus the “battle” – but within the parameters of an intelligent, reasonable analysis – thus the “studies.”

If this sounds deep and insightful, well, it is.

Kind of.

One of the key aspects that detracts from Mayer’s music is his intermittently pedestrian lyricism.  I qualify this as “intermittently” because he certainly has moments, here as on his previous albums, of witty, striking, or just simply strong, well-worded lyrics.  And yet, there are also those head-shaking, “isn’t this your fourth album” moments when he sings lines like “I love you more than songs can say,” “then you come crashing in like the realest thing,” and the general “half and half,” mathematical confusion of “Half of My Heart.”

The line between innocent yet intelligent sincerity and downright derivative drivel has always been the debate about John Mayer’s music – recall, for instance, the title of his second album, Heavier Things.  And I would have screamed if I had to hear one more person referencing Continuum by saying, “His blues work is so strong, I can finally take him seriously.”

Regardless of your opinion of Mayer’s intellectual and lyrical prowess, Battle Studies is a well put-together record that consistently demonstrates his awareness of the big picture.  The album opens with a fade in to “Heartbreak Warfare,” which clearly establishes the battle imagery and the war metaphor for a romantic relationship in distress.  The song provides just the right blend of symbolic description and more literal framing for the album to follow.

“All We Ever Do Is Say Goodbye” is a perfect representation of that moment before a breakup when the fighting has ceased and the inevitability of it all can be depressing, crushing.  It is, of course, soon followed by a rationalization of the situation – Mayer interestingly brought in country music star Taylor Swift to simplify things and play a catchy, if straightforward tune.

Then comes the breaking point.

“Who Says” set off some controversy when it was first released due to the repeated question, “Who says I can’t get stoned?”  This is yet another example of the general public being incapable of taking a line metaphorically.  This is hardly a “tokin’ song,” as one YouTube viewer suggested in his poor review of the single.  Mayer is clearly – and has said as much himself – using the marijuana reference to represent actions that you wouldn’t normally be able to take due to the expectations of others.  This is quite in line with other queries in the song such as, “Who says I can’t be free from all of the things that I used to be?”

Even the line “I don’t remember you looking any better, but then again, I don’t remember you” is questionable.  Some have written it off as glorifying a reunion after a drugged or drunken one night stand.  I hope that I do not offer too much credit to Mayer when I read this as an extension of the experimentation and freedom of this song – in other words, he doesn’t remember this person because he has never met them before.  Now that he is single again, he is free to “meet all the girls in the county line.”

This declaration of rebellion and/or independence is followed by “Perfectly Lonely,” a catchy ode to bachelorhood that highlights some of Mayer’s best guitar work.  Then comes “Assassin,” an even deeper dive into the territory of the “player/heartbreaker.”

John Mayer's "Battle Studies" (2009)

John Mayer's "Battle Studies" (2009)

The most difficult track for me to process has been his cover of “Crossroads.”  Yes, this is an old Robert Johnson song, but Mayer is really channeling Eric Clapton here.  That being said, Mayer’s “Crossroads” is hardly a faithful cover of the Cream track.  Instead, there are remnants of the guitar riff included in a song just begging to be DJ’ed into a dance mix.

I’m not sure how I feel about that.

Well, I actually am sure how I feel about that.  But what I do like about this track is its thematic relevance to the album.  The idea of being at a crossroads comes at the perfect time, halfway through the album.  The previous three tracks have celebrated “loneliness” of a sort, but this track reminds us that if we are all alone, we may go unrecognized when we try to “flag a ride.”

“War of My Life” is a perfect choice to follow this cover, as Mayer reverts to that classic sound he has come to be known for – and I should emphasize that “Assassin” and “Crossroads” really do have a sound that is all their own on this record.  As per usual, Mayer returns to his standby pensive lyrics and pouty crooning.

The final section of the album is where something is lost, some energy and presence that was stronger in the opening half.  This is precisely where my opinion of the album wavers.

That being said, these final three tracks complete the cycle of this album concept, providing narration from a man on the “Edge of Desire” ready to go back on what he believes in order to restore his relationship.  Then comes the re-assessment, pulling himself out of that moment of weakness with “Do You Know Me.”  Finally, Mayer closes up shop on this album with the anthemic “Friends, Lovers, or Nothing,” putting forth a learned truth of sorts.

All in all, Battle Studies accomplishes what it set out to – namely, to study a relationship at the end of its lifespan from the perspective of an individual maintaining his dignity, going back on what he has said, and ultimately enjoying and – more interestingly – appreciating his individuality and independence.

Mayer has called this album a sidestep, and Battle Studies sounds like it picks up from where Heavier Things left off.

And that is more than all right with me.

This is one in a series of acoustic cover songs, original music, and free mp3 downloads here on the Laptop Sessions Music Video Blog.

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