Throughout John Mayer’s meteoric rise as a singer/songwriter, beginning with his fledgling debut Room For Squares, he has become increasingly reflective, pensive and philosophical – a trend well-documented in his lyrics and Twitter updates.
On his new concept album, Battle Studies, out today, he explores and muses over levels of interpersonal relationships, love loss, loneliness and heartbreak. While the songwriter has definitely addressed a few of these topics in previous studio efforts, he has declared the new record a kind of collection of his observations on the subjects.
The opening two songs, “Heartbreak Warfare” and “All We Ever Do Is Say Goodbye,” set the observational tone for the album.
“Once you want it to begin, no one really ever wins in heartbreak warfare,” Mayer sings.
Pop sensation Taylor Swift joins Mayer on “Half of My Heart,” featuring a chorus vocal harmony that makes the song destined for mainstream radio overplay.
What at first appears to be a strong album loses some steam during the all-around apathetic, acoustic single, “Who Says,” on which Mayer proposes:
“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?”
It’s difficult to tell if the song, which also includes the line, “I don’t remember you looking any better, but then again, I don’t remember you,” is ego-conscious or egocentric. The song is the first of a few that don’t seem to fit the album’s proposed theme.
Perhaps the album’s most puzzling moment is an awkward cover of Robert Johnson’s blues classic “Crossroads.” The song was most notably covered by Cream in 1968 in a sizzling electric guitar arrangement by Eric Clapton. Mayer’s cover seemingly attempts to modernize Cream’s interpretation of the song, keeping the basic guitar riff, but adding a jazzed up rhythm section and synthetic distorted effects to the guitar.
The cover could have given Mayer the perfect opportunity to showcase his blues-influenced guitar-playing abilities that he demonstrates so well live. Instead, his guitar solo is as choppy as the rest of the song, and the track clocks in at a meager two and a half minutes. Mayer’s exceptional skill as a guitarist seems often lost in his studio efforts.
Fortunately, Battle Studies does have a few shining moments that do seem to play to those strengths. “Edge of Desire,” a late album track, features multilayered guitars in a fairly powerful outro, and “Perfectly Lonely,” one of the record’s liveliest, features more clearly defined guitar work than elsewhere.
The album falls flat on the unbearably weak “Do You Know Me,” which feels at best like an auditory daydream. The airy, low-key acoustic playing and oversimplified lyrics verge on boring.
Of the scarce profound statements, one of the strongest comes on the album’s final track, “Friends, Lovers or Nothing,” on which Mayer hypothesizes, “There can only be one.”
The wit and cleverness with which Mayer has come to be associated seems surprisingly lacking throughout Battle Studies.
Rather unexpectedly, there’s not much of anything groundbreaking in Mayer’s study.
Last Word: Still waiting to be inspired by Mayer’s relationship findings.
Kevin Brosky can be reached at email@example.com.