Poison gas clouds, a profusion of explosions, people getting assassinated — such is the imagery John Mayer invokes on his latest release, Battle Studies. What could cause these scenes of terror and confusion? The answer appears to be love.
At age 32, Mayer has apparently amassed enough experiences in courting women to corroborate Pat Benatar’s assertion that love is, indeed, a battlefield. And now he has graciously decided to pass the wealth of knowledge he’s gained from studying this battle on to us, his listeners. And so springs forth John Mayer’s first themed album — every track but one (a cover of Cream’s 1968 hit “Crossroads”) is exclusively a love song. Or more appropriately, each is a song about love.
I don’t pretend to be a professional music critic, but I am a colossal fan of John Mayer. This acquaintance with his music leads me to these observations of his latest work:
Battle Studies is not Continuum. Fresh off the John Mayer Trio blues binge, Continuum was principally a guitar rock album, with lyrical content providing the garnish. At first glance, Battle Studies appears to be just the opposite. What remains unclear is exactly which direction away from Continuum Mayer seems to be going musically. At times, Studies feels like the late ’80s, and at others it could easily be featured on Country Music Television. For now, he seems content to displace his label as guitar virtuoso, putting emphasis almost exclusively on lyrical content. Even on “Crossroads,” a blues classic, Mayer resists the urge to flex his guitar muscle, laying down an extremely tame solo partway through. (Instead, he opts to record the song through a bizarre effect pedal, making it sound like the title music to “Contra” for the NES).
Mayer appears to still be concerned with commercial success. Don’t let the extended title to “Half of My Heart” fool you — the song most definitely does not feature Taylor Swift. Unless singing four words over again for a total of ten seconds constitutes “featuring” an artist. What is more likely is that Mayer agreed to “collaborate” because Swift is surging in the music scene with a fan base that actually purchases music. Simply having Swift’s name on the track automatically means a greater volume of record sales. It may be just as well though, since the song sounds like the music video should be set in a high school hallway during class change.
Devoting an entire album to one subject is extremely limiting for Mayer. Especially when that one subject happens to be something he doesn’t have the ability to portray particularly well. His place in the tabloids the past couple years, moving from one superficial relationship to the next, serves to underscore my lack of confidence in his lyrical portrayal of such an “intense battle.” Throw in the fact that he refuses to upstage his lyrics with any sort of innovative guitar work, and the result is an album lacking real depth.
During its best songs, Battle Studies is listenable and above average; during its worst it is repetitive and extremely forgettable. “Waiting room music,” “light FM radio,” “the soundtrack to Disney’s Tarzan featuring Phil Collins,” and “songs that play while pictures of waterfalls shuffle on a computer screen saver” are all solid candidates to finish the phrase “this sounds like…” for much of Studies. Again, this could be deliberate on Mayer’s part to draw the listener into the message of each song. Unfortunately, it can also push people away.
The album finishes with the refreshing slow build of “Friends, Lovers, or Nothing,” which rounds out the small group of tracks that actually sound like John Mayer. The piano ballad serves as an ironic closer for Studies, stressing the impossibilities of being “in between.” The advice is just as applicable in music. With his new album, Mayer sends the message that he wants to be just as renowned for his lyrical ability as his musical ability, and takes a step away from the sure footing of his previous work to do so. But what Mayer wants to do, he doesn’t (at this point) appear to be capable of doing, leaving him short of his desired destination. And against his own advice, “in between” is exactly where Battle Studies has landed him.
Daniel Anderson is Rhombus’ resident armchair economist and an occasional music correspondent.