With his high-profile romantic life and controversial interviews, music fans and celebrity watchers could be forgiven if they forgot that John Mayer made music for a living rather than headlines. Battle Studies, the fourth studio album from the Connecticut-born artist, was released in November, 2009, and focuses most prominently on the theme of relationships, a topic covered on previous Mayer releases.
The album opens with “Heartbreak Warfare,” a song which, as the title implies, covers the disintegration of a romantic relationship. While the prevailing guitar riff sounds reminiscent of the U2 classic “Bad,” the lyrics paint a picture of lovers at war (“Clouds of sulfur in the air/bombs exploding everywhere/it’s heartbreak warfare”), a theme that continues into second track “All We Ever Do is Say Goodbye.”
Battle Studies then veers into the more introspective territory with which Mayer’s fans would be well familiar. “Half of My Heart,” a pleasant duet with pop/country ingenue Taylor Swift (although her lightweight vocal abilities are reduced mainly to backup work here), deals with a wayward heart struggling with settling down and “Assassin” wears out the already-tired metaphor of one-night lover as stealthy hired killer. Other song titles (“Perfectly Lonely” and “Friends, Lovers or Nothing”) leave little clue as to the lyrical content, and given Mayer’s rather public personal life, some listeners may have trouble separating John Mayer the Artist from John Mayer the Man and Celebrity.
As on his previous studio effort, Mayer attempts a classic cover song. His choice for Battle Studies is Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads,” a song likely more familiar to modern audiences thanks to the 1960s Cream cover (featuring tour de force guitar work from Eric Clapton). Mayer’s update is stripped down, with none of Clapton and Cream’s bombastic flourishes. While Mayer’s remake may strike some purists as sounding too “electronic,” his guitar work is, as always, spot on and strikes the right note between the song’s bluesy past and the musical styles of the current generation.
Battle Studies is perhaps at its best when Mayer is most restrained (the simple, sing-along ditty “Who Says”) or completely unleashed (“Edge of Desire,” a song about lust that carefully builds to gorgeous climax). But, ultimately, Battle Studies is comfort food for John Mayer fans, an album that breaks little to no new ground musically or lyrically from what listeners have come to expect from his work (excepting the more blues-focused John Mayer Trio). Those looking for nothing more than Mayer’s usual stellar guitar work and introspective songwriting with be satisfied with Battle Studies, but those wanting something different and unusual from him will surely be disappointed.