Wednesday, November 18, 2009
John Mayer, Battle Studies
John Mayer is the love of my life. Okay, not really, but I like him a lot. I've been more excited about his next release than any other album this year. Continuum was nice and meaty, but very open-ended, like Mayer still had much, much more to say. In some ways, Heavier Things was the answer to Room for Squares. Similarly, Battle Studies is Mayer's answer to Continuum. And it feels good.
The lyrical content of Battle is a clear departure from Mayer's previous, more philosophical writings. Most of the songs deal with relationships, unlike the heart-and-soul anthems of his previous releases. You could definitely say it's a break-up album. Mayer has always had a playful tone to tap into when he needs it ("My Stupid Mouth," "83"), tempered with a cutting melancholy ("Something's Missing," "Stop This Train"). Here there's less wit and more prodding wisdom, and lyrical hooks just vague enough to draw you into the songs. Nothing too deep for a pop song, and nothing too trite either.
Musically, the album is just what you'd expect. John Mayer cements his position as the most (or only?) tasteful guitarist in mainstream pop, and one of its most clean and dependable male vocalists. I've always regarded his work as "worry-free listening": no need to worry about sudden odd riffs or weird song structures. Although there's nothing that quite tops his live performances in Where The Light Is, and nothing as intense as Try! or Heavier Things, Mayer's guitar solos are undeniably satisfying. The production values are stellar, and Mayer's studio musicians leave nothing to be desired.
After Mayer's blues venture took me by complete surprise, I wondered how it would affect his pop career, if he even chose to go back. Well, he did, and he's sounded a little more soulful ever since. He even covers Robert Johnson's "Crossroads," the only true blues song on the album. After featuring Hendrix's "Bold As Love," on Continuum, I'm wondering if covering another guitar master is something we can look forward to on Mayer's next album.
Although most of the album is very polished and mature, Mayer's not exempt from making a few unusual (but forgivable) creative decisions. For one, Taylor Swift sounds very out of place on "Half of My Heart." John Mayer's singing is like shepherd's pie: it doesn't need a country starlet side dish. And throwing the word "shit" into "Heartbreak Warfare" doesn't make John a better, edgier songwriter. You'd think he would have learned after the almost comical "damn" in "Bigger Than My Body."
When I was listening to this album for the first time, I was looking for ways it would be different from Mayer's previous albums. I was expecting it to be revolutionary, but after a few spins I realized that I only wanted it to be consistent. John Mayer certainly expands his style, especially with songs like "Assassin" and "Who Says," which are two of the album's best, but the core Mayer goodness is still there in force. I'm not ready for a polarizing Mayer experience yet; maybe in a year or so we'll see him start experimenting more, but right now I'll take whatever he's giving.