Review Summary: Mayer's most laid-back and easygoing album yet. It doesn't quite reach the heights of his masterpiece 'Continuum,' but it's got such an appealing vibe, and so many great moments, that it's definitely worth a listen to anybody interested in well-crafted po
If you check out the comments section on any YouTube video even remotely related to John Mayer, you'll most likely bear witness to a war between the ardent 'he's a superb musician!' camp, and the 'he's a douchebag with no talent!' opposition. There are varying levels of accuracy in each side's argument; sure, he's a douchebag, but he is, frustratingly, one of the most talented guitarists and pop songwriters around today. 2006's 'Continuum' saw Mayer step up his musicality significantly from his previous album, 'Heavier Things.' Whilst 'Heavier Things' and his debut album 'Room For Squares' were well-crafted, inoffensive pop-rock albums with some moments of guitar genius, 'Continuum' really brought Mayer into the spotlight of blues aficionados, as he displayed the kind of musical sensibility that would have befitted a guitarist decades his senior. It was a much more refined outing for Mayer than before, and set anticipation levels for follow up 'Battle Studies' pretty high, even for some 'hardcore' music fans, who had previously dismissed Mayer as bubblegum pop based on the atrocious single 'Your Body Is A Wonderland.' So we've seen Mayer mature before, and the result of that process was the sublime 'Continuum.' How does the next stage of this process, in the form of 'Battle Studies,' weigh up to it's predecessor?
Sadly, that question isn't one that can be sufficiently answered in one word. 'Battle Studies' is certainly a more mature outing for Mayer, even than 'Continuum' was, but I can't quite reconcile that with the fact that Continuum is, undeniably, still his masterpiece. Still, 'Battle Studies' opens pleasantly, with the U2-alike opener Heartbreak Warfare being a chilled out track, with another impressively restrained, but still excellent, solo from Mayer, to remind us that he is still the best blues guitarist of our generation. The lyrics are a mixed bag, and are also indicative of the entire rest of the albums'. They reference his messy, media-fueled breakup with Jennifer Aniston almost explicitly, and whilst there are actually some surprisingly sharp lines hidden in there, the main metaphor of the song, and indeed the whole album, of love being a war, is a concept that's doomed to cheesy failure, essentially, from square one. It does manage to put an original spin on the tired concept, but some tracks cross the line between touching and melodramatic. It's a shame, and a missed opportunity, as we know from some tracks on 'Continuum' that Mayer is actually capable of writing inventive, and surprisingly intelligent, lyrics.
After the initial disappointment, although not an unexpected one, of the lyrics wears off, you can get down to the main reason that Mayer has at least some reverence amongst more hardcore music fans; his guitar playing. Live album 'Where The Light Is' showcased his ridiculous talent in the form of ten-minute plus blues pieces, and his recent concerts have ended with a fifteen minute version of Gravity, involving Mayer playing the guitar behind his back, on the floor and with a drumstick. Essentially, we know that Mayer has got chops to rival any single blues guitarist of our generation and, most likely, to outdo them. But the interesting, and impressive, thing about this album is Mayer's gentlemanly restraint in terms of soloing. Just as 'Continuum' mainly shied away from explosive demonstrations in blues virtuosity, 'Battle Studies'' solos focus entirely on feel. While this might sound frustrating to those keen to hear Mayer's much-touted ability, it actually serves the feel of the album far more than any technical demonstration could. 'Battle Studies' is, despite the subject matter, actually a very mellow album, with most of its eleven songs sticking firmly in the camp of mid-tempo, but still upbeat, riffs and chord progressions.
The calmer, less showy solos are so well suited to the album that they'll keep you returning to even the simpler songs, many times over. Take track two, All We Ever Do Is Say Goodbye, for example. Whilst it's one of the weakest tracks on the album (second only to the uncharacteristically dreadful 'Do You Know Me'), its predictable chorus and inoffensive, but almost dull, verses are completely saved by the gorgeous guitar solo towards the end. Mayer utilizes the slide breathtakingly, crafting what amounts to an entire, wordless, story in the space of about twenty seconds. If that doesn't do it for you, then the solo that forms the climax of the excellent (if pretentiously titled) 'Edge of Desire' will. The song is one of, if not the, strongest tracks on the album, and at around the midway point it all stops for a second, before the surprisingly-not-annoying power chords kick in, signalling to you, the listener, that something good is about to happen. What follows is, without a doubt, one of the most emotive guitar solos since Gilmour immortalized Comfortably Numb. With a scarce number of notes, Mayer manages to conjure up the kind of emotions that his inconsistent lyrics never could. This wondrous moment only lasts for about fifteen seconds, but it is utterly breathtaking, and is the kind of moment that keeps you returning to the better tracks on the album again and again, as Mayer does these moments so well, and so often, without them getting tiring.
So, you might be able to tell from the last two paragraphs that I still really like this album, despite it not coming close to even touching the level of quality displayed in 'Continuum.' It certainly has its flaws; the lyrics are inconsistent, and mostly veer on the side of the cheesy and melodramatic, some songs drag on with seemingly interminable and generic passages, and the entire album suffers from the 'the chorus is the title repeated over and over' syndrome that Mayer seems to have been born with. But nonetheless, the album still feels like a triumphant successor to 'Continuum' for Mayer. Sure, it's not as perfect as 2006's masterpiece, but Mayer himself said that this time, he was going for a mellower, more imperfect album than 'Continuum's constant re-recording of parts, until they were bang on. And that really shows here; 'Battle Studies' isn't an objectively great album, but it's got so many good moments, and such an appealing overall vibe, that it will certainly be just as enjoyable as 'Continuum' in the long run, if not quite as perfect.