In that sense, then, “Battle Studies” seems like a natural follow-up to “Continuum,” Mayer’s critically loved 2006 album.
Though that release’s hopeful first single, “Waiting on the World to Change,” was stylistically simple, “Continuum” signified a shift for Mayer from straightforward acoustic to heavier rock, which was an outgrowth of his 2005 live album, “Try!,” recorded with his dirty blues band, the John Mayer Trio.
After all, there was a reason Mayer was featured on the cover of Rolling Stone along with the Red Hot Chili Peppers‘ John Frusciante and the Allman Brothers Band’s Derek Trucks in February 2007 and was named by the publication as one of the “New Guitar Gods,” and the “Slowhand Jr.” nickname that the magazine gave him finally earns its weight on “Battle Studies.” Mayer ends up channeling Clapton in more ways than one, both in the album’s instrumentation (think “Layla“) and compelling songs about heartache (you can think about “Layla” for this one, too).
Mayer has said “Battle Studies” is like a “heartbreak handbook,” and that concept begins immediately with opener “Heartbreak Warfare.” Starting with an orchestral, very U2-like wall of sound, Mayer keeps things soothingly slow, a move that pairs unexpectedly — but successfully — with his frustrated lyrics. “If you want more love / Why don’t you say so?” he asks, as the instrumentation adds more echoing guitar lines and layered harmonies to surround him in an enveloping mask of mope.
The second track, “All We Ever Do Is Say Goodbye,” is more of a return to Mayer’s acoustic roots, however, as the song focuses more on his vocal delivery than on swelling instrumentation. Though the song gets a bit repetitive (Mayer repeats the line “All we ever do is say goodbye” for most of its second half) and seems to yank some harmonies from The Beatles, it works as a cut-and-dry ballad, with Mayer admitting “You say you wanna try again / But I’ve tried everything but giving in” and using his customary falsetto for the chorus. Just imagine the faces he’s going to make while performing this baby live.
The album continues with this electric-acoustic balancing act for Mayer’s other nine tracks, but he manages to keep things lively by incorporating other genres, like country (which he shows off on “Half of My Heart,” which has background vocals from Taylor Swift, the Country Music Association’s recently named Entertainer of the Year), folk-y guitar-plucking (on the simply arranged and marijuana-supporting “Who Says“) and distorted funk (which accentuates the comfortable sound of “Perfectly Lonely” and also supports “Crossroads,” Mayer’s cover of Robert Johnson’s classic “Cross Road Blues“). Touches like those keep “Battle Studies” from veering off into unbearable monotony.
And when Mayer truly pushes the experimentation to the limit, he produces the album’s best tracks — “Assassin,” “War of My Life” and “Edge of Desire.” On “Assassin,” Mayer may have created his most forceful work yet: The track starts off with bells, softy tapped drums and what sounds like Peruvian rainsticks; incorporates cooing “whoa-whoa-whoa” background vocals; and lyrically compares the secrecy and sneaking around of an assassin to that of a booty call. When the song switches gears about halfway through, goes all electric and spazzes out into a fuzzy, bluesy guitar solo, it becomes a perfect example of how Mayer has developed into the jack-of-all-trades Rolling Stone predicted a couple of years ago.
Similarly good are “War of My Life,” which couples more echo and reverb effects with contemplative, introspective lyrics about fractured relationships and confronting death (“I’ve got a hammer / And a heart of glass / I got to know right now / Which walls to smash”), and “Edge of Desire,” which seems to channel Walt Whitman’s legendary “O Pioneers!” poem with its lyrics about lustful yearnings and the inevitability of old age and death (“So young and full of running / All the way to the edge of desire / Steady my breathing / Silently screaming”). One of the album’s most genuine-sounding tracks, it’s not an outright, Sex Pistols-like exclamation of resistance, but it’s the angriest Mayer on record yet.
Though the album does have a few missteps (such as the self-indulgently fragile “Do You Know Me” and closer “Friends, Lovers or Nothing,” which meanders along for nearly six minutes), it’s Mayer’s most cohesive album yet.
And while he hasn’t succeeded in “closing up shop on acoustic sensitivity,” as he told MTV a few years ago that he would do, he’s certainly progressing past it. For the man who once tried to seduce Rob Dyrdek‘s mom on “Fantasy Factory,” that’s a big accomplishment.
» Stream “Battle Studies” here.
» Verizon Center, 601 F St NW; Sat., Feb. 20; 202-661-5000. (Gallery Place-Chinatown)
Written by Express contributor Roxana Hadadi
Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images