Album Review: John Mayer, “Battle Studies” (2009)

Anyone who knows me knows that, musically, first and foremost, I am a John Mayer fan.  I have loved him from the moment his video for “No Such Thing” graced my TV screen in 2002; I have stayed devoted for the eight years since then- buying all his CDs, EPs, live DVDs, attending concerts, and everything in between.

Naturally, when Mayer released his fourth studio album, Battle Studies, last November, I was the first in line to pick it up.  It has been about three years since the release of Mayer’s last album, and I was greatly anticipating what the new release would hold.

The years in-between Continuum and Battle Studies have been mostly spent with media attention on Mayer’s love life (or lack thereof, depending on which rag you pick up), and that seems to be heavily documented on Battle Studies; more than half of the songs are about love.  Mayer has always written about love, but this time around, he seems less inspired, and the result is, perhaps, the first album of his that I didn’t absolutely love.

The disc opens with Heartbreak Warfare, a mid-tempo ballad as epic as its title suggests.  Musically, the song sounds like a mix of earlier U2 (think “Where The Streets Have No Name”) meets Sting; I believe my first listen of the song led me to describe it via Twitter: “It’s like Bono and Sting had a musical baby and Heartbreak Warfare is the result.”    Lyrically, the song describes the end of a relationship, in the succinct and emotional way that I’ve come to love and expect from Mayer (“How come the only way to know how high you get me/Is to see how far I fall/God only knows how much I’d love you if you’d let me/But I can’t break free at all…/If you want more love, why don’t you say so?/It’s a heartbreak warfare…”).

Next up is All We Ever Do Is Say Goodbye, a melancholy number about, well…saying goodbye.  The song tells the story about an on again, off again relationship (“Just when I had you off my head/Your voice comes thrashing wildly through my quiet bed/You say you wanna try again/But I’ve tried everything but giving in/Why you wanna break my heart again?/Why am I gonna let you try?”) and while the sentiment is nice and Mayer’s vocals are quite pleasant, the track sort of falls flat.  The music is incredibly slow and dreary, and even Mayer’s signature guitar work fades into the background to give way to the lyrics, which, as a whole, are pretty ordinary.

In John Mayer’s entire career he has never once done a duet with someone on a studio album, so before Battle Studies was released, I was shocked to hear murmurings of an alleged duet with Mayer and country music sweetheart, Taylor Swift, being included on the album.  I have nothing against Swift (well, besides the fact that I can rarely turn on the radio without hearing one of her songs.  And is it just me, or do they all sound incredibly similar?), but I thought the pairing of her and Mayer would be incredibly odd.  Half Of My Heart is the song in which the collaboration appears, and honestly, Swift’s name could’ve been left off the credits entirely.  She only appears on the latter end of the song, and only sings backup- I don’t really understand why Mayer couldn’t have just had a female backup vocalist do this part of the song, but I digress.  The unexplainable duet aside, the song is pretty good- nothing remarkable, especially compared to some of Mayer’s other work, but nothing worth skipping, either.  I remember reading the lyrics way before the album was released and being impressed (“Half of my heart is a shot gun 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”), but again, it’s the downbeat melody (that has a sort of country western influence- perhaps Swift had something to do with it?) that makes the song drag on.

The first single, Who Says appears, and is another slow-paced, mid-tempo ballad.  When I first heard the song, I didn’t know what to think.  A few listens later and I loved it. Now I feel somewhat indifferent.  The song is mostly made up of acoustic guitar and vocals, and calls to mind some of Mayer’s earlier work, which is a nice throwback.  However, the lyrics aren’t the strongest we’ve seen from Mayer (“Who says I can’t get stoned?/Turn off the lights and the telephone/Me and my house alone/Who says I can’t get stoned?/Who says I can’t be free?/From all of the things that I used to be/Re-write my history/Who says I can’t be free?”), and I think much more could’ve been done with the song, but the end result sort of just leaves me shrugging my shoulders.  Which is the attitude of the song, overall, so I suppose my reaction is fitting.

Finally, a home-run appears on the album in the form of Assassin.  Up to this point, Battle Studies has been all dreary ballads, mid-tempo shoulder-shruggers, and pointless duets (*cough cough*).   Assassin begins with some quiet percussion, before Mayer’s vocals are introduced, and the opening lines are immediately exciting: “I work in the dead of night, when the roads are quiet, and no one is around to track my moves.”   The lyrics continue on in this manner, as Mayer sings about a sort of twisted relationship (“I was a killer, was the best they’d ever seen/I’d steal your heart before you ever heard a thing/I’m an assassin and I had a job to do/Little did I know that girl was an assassin too”), and the slick percussion and guitar are equally fitting, making the listener feel like they’re right with Mayer as he plays the assassin.   There’s a killer electric guitar solo towards the bridge, and finally, finally, I am reminded of the John Mayer I’ve known and fell in love with.

There are a few other heavy hitters on the disc besides Assassin.  Edge of Desire is another slow paced number, that took some time for me to get used to, but ultimately plays as one of the strongest tracks on the album.  The guitar work is exquisite, and I absolutely love listening to Mayer’s vocals during the verses.  The chorus is beautifully written (“Don’t say a word just come over and lie here with me/’Cause I’m just about to set fire to everything I see/I want you so bad, I’ll go back on the things I believed/There I just said it, I’m scared you’ll forget about me.”) and the song has a wonderfully relaxed feel about it; akin to taking a walk through the park on a beautiful fall day.   War of My Life is a favorite of mine for two reasons, really; one, I can relate to it on a personal level, and two, it’s possibly the only song on the album (besides Crossroads, but more on that later) that’s not directly about a relationship or its demise.  Instead, Mayer talks about life’s problems and how we just have to keep on fighting through them (“I’m in the war of my life/I’m at the core of my life/Got no choice but to fight ‘til it’s done/So Fight on, fight on everyone, so fight on/Got no choice but to fight ‘til it’s done”).  Again, nothing revolutionary, but it’s a nice sentiment and the acoustic guitar is light and pleasant.

And then…I’m honestly sad and ashamed to say this, but…the rest of the album falls into mediocrity.  I’ve very rarely viewed any of Mayer’s songs as “filler”, but it seems like most of Battle Studies is comprised of filler songs.   Perfectly Lonely is perhaps the worst offense; the music sounds cheesy and the guitar is twangy and annoying, and the lyrics irritate me even more.  Mayer’s pompous declarations of being happily single seem fake (“Nothing to do, nowhere to be/A simple little kind of free/Nothing to do, no one to be/Isn’t it hard to see/Why I’m perfectly lonely/I’m perfectly lonely/It’s the way, that’s the way, it’s the way that I want it”), especially since he spends a good portion of the album whining about how he’s lonely and can’t make a relationship work.  Look, I know I’m only 22 and don’t know much about life yet, but I’m pretty sure that very few normal people are happy being alone and single.  I’m not buying it, Johnny.

Meanwhile, songs like Crossroads and Do You Know Me come and go without leaving much of a mark at all.  The first of the two is a cover of a classic blues song, and the track is really just an excuse for Mayer to jam out on the guitar, ala John Mayer Trio.  It’s a likeable enough venture, but the cover really adds nothing to the album, and could’ve certainly been left for a live CD.  Do You Know Me is probably the most boring song in Mayer’s repertoire.  Musically, the song stays in the same few guitar chords, and Mayer even sounds bored while he’s singing.  The song is lyrically sparse; containing mostly the repetition of the chorus, “Do you know me at all?”.  Based on this album, I’d have to say, “No, John Mayer, I don’t know you.  Because I thought I did, but then you released this album of love songs and ballads, and I’m simply confused.”

The disc ends with another such song, titled Friends, Lovers or Nothing.  Let me just start this off by saying this track sounds like something Paul McCartney would’ve penned in his Beatles days, which isn’t a bad thing, necessarily.  It’s just a bit odd, compared to the sound of the rest of the album, but I won’t complain, because at least the tempo is a bit more upbeat this time.  I do like the lyrics a fair bit (“Friends, lovers, or nothing/There can only be one/Friends, lovers, or nothing/There’ll never be an in-between/So give it up”) and Mayer does make a good point for all of us who have tried to straddle that line with someone in the past.  My favorite part of the song comes at the end, as Mayer finish the song with a sort of anthem (“Anything other than ‘yes’ is ‘no’/Anything other than ‘stay’ is ‘go’/Anything less than ‘I love you’ is lying…”) before fading out and officially bringing things to a close.

At eleven tracks and 46 minutes, Battle Studies is one of John Mayer’s shortest albums (Heavier Things is actually shorter by one less track), but for once, I’m not complaining.  Maybe it’s because I’ve been a fan for 8 years and my expectations are too high.  Maybe Mayer spent too much time focusing on his failed love life and not enough time in the studio, writing good songs.  Maybe he’s losing his touch.  Maybe this is just one of those albums that will be forgotten about in the years to come, when better ones have been released and time has passed.

I’m not sure what the reason is, but the fact remains: John Mayer released an album that I didn’t love.  It’s a shocker to me and I’m sure it’s a shocker to you, given my past love affair with Mayer’s music.  The album, as a whole, is too linear- too many songs sound the same, too many songs are slow ballads, too many songs are about relationships gone wrong.  It’s not even linear in a way that it could be conceived as a concept album; to me, it really feels like Mayer just got lazy and half-assed his way through this album.  There are a few bright spots, of course, but as a whole, Battle Studies is well…just a lot of bull.  Which is fitting, given the fact that the album’s title can be shortened to two letters: BS.  Perhaps Mayer knew exactly what he was giving us when he released the album.  Oh, the disappointment and sadness.

Rating: 3_stars.svg

Track Listing
1. Heartbreak Warfare
2. All We Ever Do Is Say Goodbye
3. Half of My Heart
4. Who Says
5. Perfectly Lonely
6. Assassin
7. Crossroads
8. War of My Life
9. Edge of Desire
10. Do You Know Me
11. Friends, Lovers or Nothing

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=akvu1AOnUIw]
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