John Mayer originally made it big with folk pop on 2001’s Room For Squares and its most popular single, the high school reunion anthem “No Such Thing”. Adding more upbeat guitar and polishes sounds, the Connecticut native’s sophomore release Heavier Things came off as a stylish-yet-improper sequel to his debut. Traveling beyond the comfort zone a bit, Mayer began focusing more on blues guitar and less on radio singles, thus giving the world a stellar live jam album called Try! (featuring the John Mayer Trio) and following up with 2006’s soft rock and blues sequined Continuum. John Mayer changed his stripes with what felt like little effort, trading elaborate pop wit for riffs and slides — so where does this metamorphosis land him on 2009’s Battle Studies?
This release is something of an enigma at first listen; opener “Heartbreak Warfare” feels spacey like David Gilmour’s version of folk pop; “All We Ever Do Is Say Goodbye” is a reversal back to Room For Squares, only more mature; “Half Of My Heart” is the splicing of Heavier Things and Continuum. There is no question of John Mayer’s intent here, an attempt at pooling his best traits onto one album while trying to remain fresh — and he succeeds. Every song can hold its own, every song can walk hand-in-hand with its kin, and overall you get the sense of this man walking a long road with no regrets behind him.
Two songs in particular stand out and define such character: “Who Says” is a direct result of this lone wolf disposition, framing John Mayer as this sort of folk rock hippie (“I don’t remember you looking any better/but then again, I don’t remember you); “Crossroads”, a distortion-heavy cover of the staple blues song, is a track better suited to Try! but welcomed here nonetheless. The penultimate interweave holding this entire album together is the very same one present on all of John Mayer’s records — sincerity. Much like the David Grays and Bob Dylans of the world, John Mayer truly feels like a guy you can trust when he speaks or sings on record, though at times he can come off hokey or a tad too “hopeless romantic in the summer”. On Battle Studies, he strips himself of sadness and comes at his listeners subtly with a “no nonsense” ultimatum: Love it or leave it, Mayer is blues for pop fans and pop for guitarists.
“Perfectly Lonely” cashes in on Mayer’s current persona while slinging a little Dire Straits swagger and pop radio into the mix. This provides what amounts to a sort of Continuum b-side quite at home on the new record. Shortly after, “Assassin” trades in guitar for drums and vocals reminiscent of those seen on a Dave Matthews Band record, becoming an oddball in the mixture of Battle Studies — completely random, completely comfortable. “Edge Of Desire” kind of brings us back to track one some, while “Do You Know Me” is straight folk rock and album closer “Friends, Lovers Or Nothing” has been culled right from the David Gray handbook, the piano crescendo to compliment a worthy ending.
There really is not much more to be said of John Mayer that has not been said before. His personal life and pedestals aside, he is just a regular guy with a guitar and some simple songs to sing. Though lyrically, Mayer seems to have gone a tad shallow in the end here, but whether you prefer his Room For Squares lovesick poetry or his Continuum blues vibe, there is a little of both and then some present on Battle Studies… and it all gently sways to a fine conclusion.
It is still John Mayer being John Mayer, and that is why we love him.
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