REVIEW BY: Jeff Clutterbuck
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 12/16/2009
In many ways, John Mayer has crafted a modern equivalent of the classic Fleetwood Mac album Tusk. While the amount of sensory overload may differ, the situation Mayer found himself in following the release of Contiuum is a precarious one that Fleetwood Mac found themselves with after the massive success of Rumours. That leads to the inevitable question: “What comes next?”
The answer has prompted a great deal of debate amongst the music literati. One would not suggest that Battle Studies is a radical evolution in the style that Mayer has made for himself, yet there are moments that hint that Mayer wanted to expand the scope of his sound, but just didn’t know where to take things, and how far.
It’s that doubt that defines Battle Studies. The title of the album is no coincidence; the time period in between Continuum and the present day saw Mayer become engaged in public romances, only to see them end poorly. For a man unaccustomed to seeing the world through that veil, the ensuing material reflects a darker side of relationships and of Mayer himself in the wake of celebrity. The direct, controversy-inducing plea of “Who Says” is a man looking back and potentially not liking what he sees ahead.
Yet that darkness is not the John Mayer that the public would come to expect, and thus there are moments in which the sun breaks through the clouds that hover over Battle Studies. Mayer may be viewing the world through a different perspective, but there was little doubt he would completely avoid conventionality. The mere influence of the California rock sound of “Half Of My Heart” is enough to bring a smile, if just momentarily, to the face of a listener. The strategic usage of a modern superstar like Taylor Swift initially comes off as lacking sincerity, but the sheer craftsmanship overcomes such intellectual arguments.
With the advantage of hindsight, Mayer’s status as the “Next Clapton” was cheap publicity that directed him into a corner he never belonged in. Clapton’s status as a tremendous guitar player goes without saying, but one of the great failures of his career was his inability to deliver consistent, meaningful records. Mayer has blues chops, but is much more comfortable in connecting with the audience than Clapton ever was. It is not a coincidence in this reviewer’s eye that when it came time to record “Crossroads,” Mayer purposefully acknowledged the significance of the song with regards to Eric Clapton, and veered off in a completely different direction. The “Crossroads” of Battle Studies is not a showcase of skill designed to end the debate.
So much of music critiquing is dependent on pop psychology, armchair analysis from someone who thinks they truly understand just what the artist was going through to influence this song. In this day and age, however, the lives of those musicians and artists whom we love are played out on the public stage in ways their forebears never had to deal with.
How much of a leap is it on the part of the listener to scan the track listing, catch titles in the vein of “Heartbreak Warfare,” and “War Of My Life,” and make an assumption that Mayer’s personal life – which we are all familiar with – didn’t have an influence? Yes, the melodies may be inherently pleasing to the ear, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t painful for Mayer himself. That acknowledgement of vulnerability humanizes Mayer, and allows for us to connect even more as he moves on with his career. Battle Studies may not be marked down in the history books with the same level of passion as Continuum, but it won’t be forgotten either.