[25 November 2009]
As a self-professed John Mayer fan who’s followed the man’s career throughout the many swerving, twisting paths it’s taken, I’ve come to place quite a bit of emotional investment in Battle Studies, his long-anticipated follow-up to his creative break-through, Continuum. On too many an occasion have I found myself in the position of defending John Mayer’s artistic credibility amongst a pit of rabid anti-Mayer acolytes who cannot see past their burning hatred for the admitted fluff of “Your Body Is a Wonderland” and its ilk. True, Mayer got his start—as have many talented, flourishing musicians—crafting light-weight pop, but it only proved to be a building block, a stepping stone, before slowly bridging his way into more adventurous territory.
What began with Mayer dipping his toes into the water by playing side-by-side with blues legends such as Eric Clapton and Buddy Guy soon led to nailing blistering live covers of both Ray Charles and Jimi Hendrix tunes with his new cracking live band, the John Mayer Trio. All of this impressive activity eventually culminated in the release of Continuum, as bold a statement as has been made this decade by a major pop star, containing not only one of the great guitar tracks of the past 20 years in “Gravity”, but a single that’s every bit this generation’s anthemic equal to Marvin Gaye’s 1970s anti-Vietnam smash “What’s Going On” in “Waiting on the World to Change”. With swelling pride, I pointed out these achievements to Mayer’s bullish detractors, urging them to just wait and see when, in five to ten years, he blossoms into one of pop music’s most treasured artists. Unfortunately, after all of my strenuous defenses, with Mayer’s three-years-in-the-making Battle Studies, it seems as though this writer will have to swallow his words, or at least take a nice big bite out of them.
Battle Studies is crafted as a break-up album in the most bulldozing sense of the term: in Mayer’s own words, “a heartbreak handbook”. Kicking off with the insufferable “Heartbreak Warfare”—a dreary, bloated song that trades in war metaphors for broken love (“Clouds of sulphur in the air / Bombs are falling everywhere”)—the track outlines the major issue with this album, veering dangerously close to adult contemporary U2 territory by suffocating any genuine emotion with an overzealous sense of righteousness and a glossy veneer that seems to work against all of Mayer’s strengths. It’s clear this was meant as an introduction to and encapsulation of the overly-sober themes that make up the foundation of the album, but in its stilted earnestness the song’s inflated self-worth manages to botch its goal in a manner that keeps the album from ever fully recovering. That’s the problem with fashioning a thematic emotional work with a slick production stance: by smoothing out the ragged edges that offer a way in for the listener, we end up with a turgid, dour listen instead of a comforting, enlightening one that’s ultimately more cripplingly insular than revealing.
It’s a little disheartening to find that Mayer rarely, if ever, incorporates his everyguy, hangdog sense of humor and wry sarcasm into his songwriting or studio-craft. In his spare time, he’s been known to pen parodic essays poking fun at not only the definition of what it means to be a “celebrity”, but also himself, and has even dabbled in everything from comic television to stand-up. When recognizing the clear dichotomy in Mayer the Person and Mayer the Musician, it’s difficult not to wish he’d brighten up his sonic and lyrical palette with some of his guileless charm and self-effacing attitude. The humorlessness in which this album is approached proves to be, at least in part, an aspect of its undoing, made all the more dismaying in recognition of its creator’s character outside of his records.
This isn’t to imply that everything on Battle Studies is such an unbearably daunting listen. When Mayer busts open his world-weary soberness, we get flashes of what made him so endearing on past releases. The lead single, “Who Says”, may initially provoke a bit of eye-rolling with its attention-baiting refrain and a lyrical posture that feels a bit light on substance, but repeated spins expose a masked sadness underneath the surface that’s seductive in its vulnerability. On the album’s stand-out track, “Perfectly Lonely”—where Mayer ditches the spit-shined polish that threatens to drown out the rest of the record—we catch a glimpse of the blues bravado found on Continuum, with blustery guitar licks and a rugged sense of humility that boasts more playful allure than half of the tracks here combined. With “Edge of Desire”, we’re offered a peak at what-could’ve-been if the emotions abound were allowed more room to breathe, as Mayer reaches a transcending crescendo of melancholy that ultimately overcomes what generally negates the album’s success elsewhere. When Mayer sighs “There, I just said it / I’m scared you’ll forget about me” in his breathy, wounded croon, it’s difficult not to empathize with the guy.
John Mayer is clearly loaded with a plethora of not only talent, but creative intent, and it’s in the realization that he’s got the chops to pull it off that makes the album as disappointing as it is. It just seems that, in his muddled desire to strive for substance instead of allowing for a natural communication of the same goals, he’s gotten lost in the haze. It would be unfair to call Battle Studies an outright misfire, but it’s undoubtedly a regression on his winding, forward-moving path toward artistic maturity. Two steps forward, one step back then.