Battle Studies

John Mayer

Columbia, 2009

REVIEW BY: Melanie Love


John Mayer has taken a break from Twittering and serial dating celebrities to release his follow-up to 2006’s critically-acclaimed Continuum. While that disc was a hard-won effort for Mayer, lending him blues credibility after years of creating palatable but flimsy pop-rock, Battle Studies tempers that sense of urgency (and his fiery guitar-work).  Though it’s still a solid album, chock full of hopelessly relatable romantic sentiment, there is the overriding sense that something’s missing, a flatness not evident in the rich, evocative tracks that filled Continuum from start to finish.

Still, Mayer can craft some excellent hooks, and this album is one that unfolds upon repeated listening, showing its deep, wounded heart. Aside from a smooth, swaggering cover of Cream’s “Crossroads” and the fuzzy, pot-clouded “Who Says,” these are all basically love songs – or, to be more precise, heartbreak songs. Opener “Heartbreak Warfare” (which probably should’ve been the leadoff single instead of “Who Says”) is quietly lovely, with twinkling guitars, muted drums, and some bitterly evocative lyrics: “Clouds of sulphur in the air / Bombs are falling everywhere…If you want more love, why didn’t you say so?” The tension and vigor of my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 Continuum has been somewhat smoothed over, but it’s like the calm before the storm.

Mayer’s songs could be cheesy if they didn’t have his heart behind them, seeping through every lyric and chord. On “All We Ever Do Is Say Goodbye,” he’s pained but resilient, backed by shimmering instrumentation that slowly rises to a crescendo of harmonies, while “Half Of My Heart” has a swerving groove and captures well that feeling of being perpetually divided. There are a couple of less than stellar moments here, though. Aforementioned single “Who Says” has none of the intensity of “Waiting On The World To Change” or even the shameless catchiness of Mayer’s earlier pop-oriented hits, while “War Of My Life” is a bit meandering for such overwrought sentiment, and penultimate cut “Do You Know Me” is also somewhat of a repetitive throwaway.

Those low spots aside, Mayer also hits some great points. “Perfectly Lonely” is full of bluesy charm, seamless vocals, and that defiantly empty-hearted hook: “I’m perfectly lonely / ‘Cause I don’t belong to anyone / Nobody belongs to me.” Meanwhile, “Assassin” puts a nice spin on the otherwise cliché idea of players loving and leaving, with Mayer playing some fierce solos (a standout on an album that luxuriates more in feeling rather than showy instrumentation).  And though “Crossroads” is a bit out of place, it’s still a respectful nod to Mayer’s roots and the guitar gods that came before him, full of loose energy and confidence.

Battle Studies comes to a close with “Friends, Lovers or Nothing,” which, despite the overtness of its title, has a smooth flow to it, aided by Mayer’s buttery vocals and the subtle guitar threaded through. “Anything other than yes is no / Anything other than stay is go / Anything less than I love you is lies,” Mayer croons as the song winds to its end, a soulful yet decisive finishing to an equally heartfelt album.

When it comes to innovation, Battle Studies is a bit of a step back from Continuum, particularly since there was a three-year gap between studio releases. Nevertheless, there’s a lot to like on this disc, the sounds of a man who is surprisingly graceful in revealing his heartbreak.

Rating: B+

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© 2009 Melanie Love and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Columbia, and is used for informational purposes only.