Review Summary: or, John Mayer’s Eleven Reflections On The Theme Of Love, Performed In The Key Of Starry Eye'd Hunkness.
Let’s not be coy here: Battle Studies is about as scholastically violent as a bunny in a pile of hay. You see, for John Mayer, blues pop singer extraordinaire, Battle Studies is nothing less than an exercise in love and heartbreak; heartbreak warfare
in fact, as the album’s leading song would make clear. Not that this is any real surprise, given that Mayer has been nothing if not a keen surveyor and participant in the relationship game, both as a songwriter and public personality. Of course, for self declared Hard Men, Mayer is, and always will be, a bit of a pussy. And there’s more than a grain of truth in that. But they’ve been changes too, both subtle and profound – just take a look at that album cover: ‘Hey, I’m John Mayer, and I’m a hunk’. Well, hey hey, back up, what ever happened to the shy looking boy who posed so awkwardly in front of his guitar (which he happened to rule at?). I’ll tell you. Try! happened. Continuum happened. Jennifer Aniston happened. Twitter happened. Long story short, John Mayer became, well, cool.
Hence the title: Battle Studies. The secret alternate title, which everyone knows but refuses to admit to, is far longer: John Mayer’s Eleven Reflections On The Theme Of Love, Performed In The Key Of Whatever. But it isn’t named that. Because John Mayer is cool, and Battle Studies is the coolest (read: easiest, breeziest, chill) collection of Mayer’s songs yet, at least measured by the standards of pop consciousness. This isn’t to mistake it for his best though – no, that title goes to Continuum, which remains the closest thing to a perfect blues-pop record ever written. Battle Studies, by comparison is relaxed and laid back, it’s feet in the air and stripped of extravagance with Mayer simply doing his thang with ease and pazazz. It’s a change made clear from the record’s opening triad, all three of which are almost entirely empty of Mayer’s trademark guitarwork, replaced instead by instances of watery electronic drops, lightly strummed open chords and simple one-two beats over Mayer’s distinctive soulful croon.
While they border on the edge of tame territory, it’s not until the opening beats of lead single “Who Says”, does Battle Studies begin to shake off the dust of Mayer’s three year full-length absence. See, “Who Says”, is, in some ways the quintessential Mayer track, with it’s delicate finger plucked acoustic twangs, catchy earthy beats and just-hip-enough-to-be-cool-without-overdoing-it theme’s and references: ‘Who says I can’t get stoned?’, or ‘It’s been a long night in New York City’ – all of it straddling a patchwork of threads which Mayer has been weaving for a long time now; between subtlety and flashiness, between subdued adult contemporary and hip cool guy, and perhaps most importantly for this album, between lover and lovee
. (‘I got a hammer, and a heart of glass’ sings the Jekyll and Hyde balancer on “War Of My Life”). Goldilocks, incarnated here by Taylor Swift on “Half Of My Life”, would be impressed. That said, while ‘just right’ is no substitute for capital-A Awesome, Battle Studies nevertheless hits the breezy heights it sets itself with an ease that could only be pulled off by an incredibly relaxed John Mayer.
Speaking of which, among those highs lie the fantastic “Assassin”, Mayer’s sharpest depiction of the Lover's Duel yet -‘I’m an assassin and I had a job to do/ Little did I know that girl was an assassin too’ – rounded off with dose of soul infused wooahhooohs and a sky-blue guitar solo to wrap it up. Mayer’s cover of the blues standard “Crossroads” also finds him playing the balancing game at its most intricate, with his take being neither edgy enough to capture the grit of the delta blues original, nor smooth enough to strike a flame into the pop charts, but nevertheless finding its own voice among Mayer’s funk addled soul as one of the highlights of Battle Studies. Not everything lives up to this (All We Ever Do Is Say Goodbye, Perfectly Lonely), but all things considered, I suspect these minor faults aren’t really all that important in the long run.
See, Mayer’s success has never exactly been premised purely on his songwriting ability, but rather his knack for dealing with universal themes in thoroughly down to earth ways, and without the layering of pop cheese that so many of his contemporaries indulge in. Anyone who has ever dabbled in the arts of the heart, say, would have something to experience in the semi-balladry of “Friends, Lovers or Nothing", where Mayer croons in almost-desperation: 'Friends, lovers or nothing, they’ll never be an in between, so give it up'. And again for the slow burning, starry melodies of “Edge Of Desire”: ‘I want you so bad, I’ll go back on the things I believe/ There, I just said it / I’m scared you’ll forget about me’. Well dear Mayer, if you keep this up, you just might stride into the pantheon of songwriting greats with nothing to fear.