REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 03/02/2011
“I’ve gone from being a musician to being a celebrity. And when people do that, their work usually suffers.”
-- John Mayer, Playboy interview, March 2010
You seemed like a decent enough guy until we really got to know you.
Sure, I ripped your folk-pop debut Room For Squares, but then you made writers like me eat crow when you followed it with the considerably more muscular and insightful Heavier Things, and I ended up heaping praise on the superb and remarkably mature Continuum. You recommitted yourself to the music, integrated Clapton-style blues-pop into your songwriting, and the results were damned impressive.
Unfortunately, in the wake of Continuum, your life outside of music descended into tabloid hell. Suddenly you were more famous for who you were dating than what you were singing. And the infamous Playboy interview from which the above quote is taken surely didn’t help. Publicly announcing that “My biggest dream is to write pornography,” declaring your preference for masturbation, and dropping the n-word while discussing why your penis prefers white women? If (as you also mention in the interview), you don’t like having people assume that you’re a douche bag, why act like one?
But what about the music? In that same TMI-peppered interview you also talked about how you’ve devoted yourself to music since age 13 with a pure and relentless intention that makes it all the more remarkable that you would allow something as ephemeral as fame to not just interfere with your creative life, but hijack it. The musical end result of this tumultuous period in your life, Battle Studies, is a stunning contradiction, a musically rich and sophisticated album that is at its core a Hollywood-blockbuster-scale pity party, so full of both self-regard and self-pity as to verge on parody.
If only you were kidding.
The melodramatic, endlessly self-referential album-opener “Heartbreak Warfare” informs your audience, fresh from reading of your latest dalliance with the latest nubile knockout in your life, that you “Dream of ways to make you understand my pain.” Really? This, from a guy who says in the Playboy interview that “There have probably been days when I saw 300 vaginas before I got out of bed”? Dude. Listen to yourself.
And yet you can’t let your victim complex go, and deploy every tool in your considerable musical toolbox to hammer home your points. Much like “Heartbreak Warfare,” the weepy “All We Ever Do Is Say Goodbye” is catchy as hell, a crisp, clean, beautifully arranged and produced ballad with lyrics that make me nauseous, if only because of the inescapable context surrounding them.
That at times overwhelming meta-ness only accelerates when Taylor Swift guests on “Half Of My Heart,” a song that at least demonstrates frank self-knowledge when you declare that “Half of my heart is the part of me that’s never truly loved anything.” (A diagnosis that I dare say young Dr. Swift would agree with; the only thing she seems to have gotten out of her experience with you is songwriting material.)
But the worst is yet to come. In this album’s alleged single, you ask “Who says I can’t get stoned / Call up a girl that I used to know / Fake love for an hour or so / Who says I can’t get stoned.” Who says, John? Well, for one, YOUR CONSCIENCE—if you still have one.
What kills me, though, John, is the way you manage to back even the most self-worshipping lyric on the entire album—the thoroughly regrettable “Perfectly Lonely”—with deliciously sharp and sophisticated blues-pop, supported once again by ace sidemen Steve Jordan (drums/production) and Pino Palladino (bass). “Had a little love but I spread it thin / Falling in her arms and out again / Made a bad name for my game ‘round town / Tore out my heart, shut it down.” There it is, the essence of this album: poor John, making the best of it after being victimized by the unreasonable expectations of these women who inexplicably get upset when you sleep with them and then toss them aside like used Kleenex.
Let’s play devil’s advocate for a moment, though, John. Willful disregard for the consequences of your actions is not the same thing as actually asking for the tabloids to overexpose you and make it impossible for the listener to separate your art from your life. But honestly, what did you expect? You can’t go out with Hollywood stars, incessantly tweet and serially overshare, and then ask people to pity you for all the scrutiny you’ve received as a result. You bear as much responsibility as they do.
You didn’t really cross the line from embarrassingly self-indulgent to creepy, though, John, until you got to “Assassin.” “Little did I know the girl was an assassin too” you sing, equating a failed attempt to forge a relationship with trying to kill each other. Not that you’re likely to experience a successful relationship anytime soon, given that you can’t even seem to tolerate the thought of spending the night: “You get in, you get done, and then you get gone / You never leave a trace or show your face, you get gone.”
I’ll give you this, though. You did a great job taking on Hendrix’s “Axis Of Love” on Continuum, and your version of the Robert Johnson classic “Crossroads,” made famous by your acknowledged idol Mr. Clapton, is rich and soulful, even if that renders it out of sync tonally with everything else on this album.
I wonder, John, did you see this album as your opportunity to respond to your critics? If so, how does a line like this one from “Edge Of Desire”—“I want you so bad, I go back on the things I believe”—help your case? Though I suppose as long as you’re coming to the realization that you’re a hypocrite with no real core values, you might as well own it.
And the titles, John… the titles. Battle Studies? “Heartbreak Warfare”? “Assassin”? “War Of My Life”? Did it never occur to you that America has been in a real-life shooting war for the past decade and that comparing your travails in the bedroom to armed conflict in which people are dying every day might be just a wee bit disrespectful?
What I’m left with in the end, John, is the strong impression that Continuum was just a feint, a momentary façade of maturity that masked the truth revealed by Battle Studies: that underneath you remain at heart an immature narcissist, a doe-eyed, Grammy-winning, platinum-selling, star-bedding lothario who we should all feel sorry for because you’re so, you know, misunderstood.
Musically, Battle Studies is smartly crafted, beautifully arranged and expertly produced. All it lacks is a soul, a conscience, and a reason to care. Two words, John: grow up.