In Brief: John Mayer is all reputation and little demonstration these days. This overproduced, instrumentally restrained album with its hackneyed relationship advice is Exhibit A.
I’m usually pretty good at separating a musician’s work from their personal lives. I figure I have to do this to a certain extent, because the vast majority of music recorded and sold on CDs is made by humans, and humans being the unique creatures that they are, even the ones you admire most will eventually do something dumb and let you down, and they are more likely to be caught doing dumb things if they lead very public lives. Let’s just be honest here. Some of the most famous musicians out there have led pretty messed-up lives, and yet in spite of that (maybe even because of it in some cases), their tortured genius has led them to create something pretty profound. Buying the product doesn’t necessarily endorse the behavior. I get that. So I generally don’t going around boycotting artists due to some perceived moral outrage.
But then there’s John Mayer, a singer/songwriter whose work I might not consider genius, but I’ve connected with a lot of the tunes he’s written over the years. His early work – mostly on the acoustic side of pop/rock – might have been the middle of the road as far as existential quarter-life crisis musings with a side of self-deprecating romance goes, but even as he became a big star and his ego got more and more inflated, he generally showed a certain sensitivity and vulnerability that made the occasional moment of hubris forgivable. Stylistically, he shifted away from the acoustic stuff and has firmly planted himself in the realm of slow-burning bluesy pop, which might not be my thing personally, but there was still plenty about 2006’s Continuum that led me to think, “Yeah, I can see where he’s coming from on that one”, even if on a few songs I was kind of like, “Hmm, he’s being a bit of a jerk.” Nobody’s perfect. And at least it was honest, right?
So now it’s 2010. And given the time John Mayer’s spent in the spotlight and some instances in which he has willingly drawn it to himself after a crash-and-burn relationship with the starlet of the month (hey, celebrities have ’em, but most don’t spill their intimate secrets in popular publications!), I’m starting to realize, hey, he really is a jerk. But so what? How’s that affect anything if he’s still writing good songs? And to that argument, I offer Mayer’s fourth solo album, Battle Studies. Purportedly a look at the emotional ups and downs of difficult relationships as told through war analogies, it’s mostly about John explaining his excuses for loving ’em and leaving ’em, and either not caring or just playing it cool so we won’t know that his ego’s been bruised. Except, wait, he admits elsewhere that it has, and wants us to feel sorry for him! Yeah, so I’m reading a lot into this record, but it’s hard not to. Mayer the songwriter and Mayer the public persona are just tough to reconcile here – try as I might to compartmentalize, it puts me at a distance from these songs because I only end up feeling like he might have brought the heartbreak upon himself. This isn’t an issue of imposing morality on another person – it’s just that I have a really, really hard time feeling sympathy for the guy.
But let’s say this record was made in a vacuum by some no-name, completely unproven songwriter. Someone without the reputation for making young girls swoon en masse at his concerts and without Rolling Stone covers declaring him to be some sort of guitar god. How would Battle Studies hold up? Not well, I’m afraid. While it’s true that Mayer might be capable of a delicately caressed guitar solo calculated for maximum emotional release during the bridge of a slickly produced torch song, the record is crafted in such a way that the things going on around Mayer demonstrate little personality. Some have characterized this as Mayer’s most adventurous record, but I’m pretty sure I must be reading that wrong, because for me, it takes the most produced elements of Continuum and Heavier Things and regurgitates them as a lifeless backdrop for the vast majority of Mayer’s new songs. I get that Mayer is the focus here, but when he’s so busy penning dull, repetitive choruses with words that try to hammer home a feeling without taking the time to really qualify it in a descriptive manner, then it honestly feels like cheating. The occasional surprising analogy or clever lyrics does come forth at odd times, but the net balance of Battle Studies is about as aggressive as a tickle fight in slo-mo. Gone are the witty observations and attention to detail that characterized Mayer’s best material, and honestly, why bother when your reputation for what you are capable of doing exceeds the actual effort you’re willing to put into an album? All Mayer has to do is coast here, which he does to the point of tedium, with the end result being a rather vomit-inducing album when all is said and done.
These might be harsh words, normally the kind you’d hear from some loser critic who isn’t half as good looking as John Mayer and who only wishes he had half the guy’s talent with guitars and with women. Guilty as charged on the looks and the guitar thing! But keep in mind that I was a fan for the first three albums, and I still enjoy my copy of Room for Squares regularly. And with that settled, let’s head into the first skirmish.
1. Heartbreak Warfare
Things actually start off reasonably well for Mayer, at least lyrically speaking. He might tend toward the overly dramatic in terms of his comparisons between the deception, manipulation, and general subterfuge that goes on when two people are dissatisfied in a relationship and, y’know, actual warfare. But the metaphor is generally well-conceived and specific enough to go beyond the typical “bad breakup that feels like I’m gonna die” type of song. Unfortunately, the music is limited to a lightly bouncing and altogether overproduced soundscape that features little of note in the guitar department. At least, despite listening to the song numerous times, nothing about the way that it is performed stands out to me as having any sort of human soul to it. This might be fine for pop artists who excel at crafting interesting textures in the studio, but this is John Mayer, a man whose supposed shift to more blues-oriented music is how he gets his acclaim these days. Show your work, John. And don’t say stuff like “you’re talkin’ sh*t again”. It just turns you from a guy who we’re willing to believe cares about this relationship into a guy who just sounds like he’s trying to act all tough, like he doesn’t care that much at all.
2. All We Ever Do Is Say Goodbye
We lapse into an even more languid, dreamy, but ultimately dull mood for the second song, which describes one of those on-again/off-again relationships in the most generic terms possible. You wouldn’t think it possible for such a sweetly soft song to bash you over the head, but listen to that drawn-out chorus where Mayer croons the title four times over, with only slight changes to the melody. I feel like I’m being bludgeoned with sadness here. He tries to make up for it with economical doses of his guitar gently weeping or some crap. It’s rather boring,
3. Half of My Heart
Wow, Mayer goes country? Well, sort of. In the “country pop” sense, anyway. Which makes Taylor Swift the perfect duet companion, I guess, even if she doesn’t show up until halfway through the song and her presence is rather understated. (Given how well she handles herself when trying to hold her own against actual powerful singers, that might be preferable.) There’s a slightly twangy edge to John’s guitar playing here, but it’s still electric and this is still a slick pop production, for the most part. John’s conflicted emotions are better expressed here than they have been elsewhere, as he describes the dilemma of being interested enough in someone to stick around and see what happens next, but disinterested enough to feel guilty about possibly wasting her time. To his credit, it doesn’t come off as being a commitment-phobic jerk or anything – he just doesn’t want to fake something that he doesn’t really feel. Keep those words in mind, folks, because we’ll revisit that idea soon.
4. Who Says
I was pleasantly surprised when I first discovered that the album’s lead single was one of John’s rare acoustic tunes. I usually like him better in this mode, since it reminds me of the Room for Squares days. But I soon realized that if he’d had this attitude back in those days, I’d never have bought any of his albums to start with. We’ll lay aside the fact that melodically, this song isn’t that interesting, a pale reflection of the finger-picked goodness that made “Stop This Train” a highlight on Continuum. It’s the lyrics that truly make this one a dud. Mayer goes on the defensive here concerning the issue of personal freedom, basically saying, “I’ll do what I want, and screw you if you don’t like it.” Sure, he’s a little more pensive and less harsh about it than how I’m paraphrasing it. But when your wish list of things you should be free to do involves getting stoned (maybe try Amsterdam?), buying a plane ticket to Japan and then not even going (wow, wish I had your disposable income!), and calling up an old flame just to fake actual interest in her and get a quickie out of the deal (I guess we just forgot everything we learned in “Half of My Heart”, eh?), then it should be obvious why it’s hard for me to relate. I suppose I can’t argue. It is his constitutional right to be an idiot. (Aside from the getting high thing, I guess.) I love America! Oh, and speaking of America, the chorus tells us several times that “It’s been a long night in (fill-in-the-blank major metropolitan area).” So basically, the song’s tailor-made so that he can name-drop whatever venue he’s playing and get uproarious applause for a song that otherwise, isn’t terribly exciting.
5. Perfectly Lonely
You know how when you break up with someone who you spent a little more time with than you really wanted to, and suddenly you find that you actually kind of enjoy spending time alone? Maybe that’s mostly a guy thing; I don’t know. But I sort of know where John’s coming from in this song, when he sings about the in-between phase where he’s freshly single and not looking. (At least, not for anything serious.) I was there in between a serious relationship in college and dating my soon-to-be wife, and you know, it’s nice not to be in a hurry. Unfortunately, my ability to commiserate with John goes out the window as soon as he talks of ruining his reputation throughout the town, and all of his friends’ girlfriends that bog them down. First, the reputation thing. Hey John, maybe Hollywood ain’t your town. (Now plays the smallest violin in the frickin’ world.) Second, the girlfriend thing. Guys that sit around and gripe about what a drag their girlfriends or wives are probably don’t deserve to have those girlfriends or wives. Hey, did I mention the music? Take what I said about “All We Ever Do Is Say Goodbye”, speed it up slightly, make it a tad more optimistic (or at least not as fatalistic), include the same general type of repetitive chorus, and… yeah. Nothing otherwise remarkable here.
I should probably hate this one on principle, because seriously, who in their right mind makes an analogy between seducing a woman and killing one? (Of course, there is the term “ladykiller”. I hadn’t thought of that before now.) Ultimately, much like “Heartbreak Warfare”, what might have been an ill-conceived idea for a song is actually saved by decent songwriting. Sure, the whole premise is skeevy, but John is able to set up the metaphor like the opening paragraphs of some sort of crime novel, and it’s a fairly compelling first-person point-of-view on a guy who gets double-crossed by a girl who is really out to kill him. And by “kill”, I mean play the seduction game, take him for the affection and attention he’s willing to give, and then cut and run. Maybe I like it because it’s a tale of what goes around, comes around. You use people, you get used. Seems fair. Mayer also doesn’t do too bad with the guitar solo here – it’s got a bit of bite to it without completely disrupting the mysterious mood of the song. Sure, it’s still overproduced and designed for anyone else involved to mostly stay out of the way. But enjoyable musical moments on this album are few and far between, so I’ll take whatever I can get.
Here we get to one of those situations where an artist is covering a classic song that I’ve never heard before in a genre that I know little about. In this case, it’s a Robert Johnson cover from the 1930’s – an old blues standard. I can’t say objectively whether Mayer did a good job with it. The grumbling riff and what little soloing John has the chance to do during the song’s brief run sound decent enough. I could see this being the sort of thing that might bring down the house, given the right treatment, but once again, it’s designed to keep everyone but Mayer out of the spotlight, so the drums are lackadaisical and the overall production rather mannered. The lyrics, which describe a man at an intersection unable to hitch a ride – are minimal – and I can’t knock Mayer for that, because that seems to generally be the structure of these old songs. Mostly, I’m just wondering why Mayer’s covering this. I don’t buy him as the voice behind these words for a second, and I can’t make the transition from image-managed pop star to bluesy everyman here. So while I have a generally pleasant response to the sound of this one, it still feels like Mayer’s trying to be something he’s not here. At least when he covered “Route 66” for the Cars soundtrack, that had some sort of purpose to it, y’know?
8. War of My Life
I feel like this one stole its vaguely country, vaguely bluesy, but mostly pop motif from “Half of My Heart”, and it’s never a good thing when I’m comparing one John Mayer song to another one of his songs that is merely decent. This one’s not even close to decent. It’s faceless. It’s supposed to be about fighting fear, but it’s about the calmest, most easygoing piece of mid-tempo muzak that you could possibly pair with the subject. I neither empathize with his worries about his personal demons, nor feel charged up to run into the battle he’s trying to describe. And the chorus is an incredibly off-putting lesson in Remedial Songwriting 101, since he rhymes every one-syllable word with “war” that he can think of. “I’m in the war of my life… at the core of my life… at the door of my life…” oh wait, that’s all three. I guess I should be glad he ran out of hackneyed rhymes to use without bothering to explain the metaphors, before he got to “sore” and “wh*re”.
9. Edge of Desire
Switching to 3/4 time helps to change up the mood a bit for this mostly economical ballad, built around a quiet but melodically pleasing electric guitar melody. This song’s designed a bit better to gradually build up the tension and explore Mayer’s desperation. I still don’t totally believe that he’s a man on the brink of madness as he seems to imply when he croons “I’m about to set fire to everything I see”, but hey, maybe he really does want sex that badly. He’s a bit jaded here, not knowing if love is worth it, and basically making the most existential argument he can think of for a good booty call. I’m not sure if he’s trying to play the bad boy here (or why a girl would respond to this sort of invitation, other than the fact that he’s you know, famous), or if he’s really just that pathetic. What really clinches it is when he comes up with this clumsily geeky musing: “Maybe this mattress will spin on its axis and find me on yours.” That just brings an unintentionally funny image to mind involves bumps and bruises and general confusion. Essentially, these lyrics take an otherwise decent musical construction (with a pretty sweet guitar solo – go figure, this is where he’d finally bring one out) and flush it down the crapper.
10. Do You Know Me
Against all odds, the album’s mellowest song turns out to be its best. Maybe it’s just because there’s less time for Mayer to screw things up here, but I have to give him credit – he switched to the acoustic and he’s plucking out a lovely little melody on it, the kind that’s designed to feel like the voice of some distant fantasy and to show off some good fretwork, too. There’s little to say here – just a few curious questions about a girl he thinks he recognizes, perhaps a long forgotten past love or perhaps someone who resembles a daydream. It’s harmless, really, but effective enough with the lightly sexy bounce of its simple chorus. It runs the risk of feeling like an interlude more than a fully realized song, but it’s the one track on the album that manages to not do anything which annoys me.
11. Friends, Lovers or Nothing
The final song is largely built around piano and slow-handed blues guitar, and I could swear I’ve heard that repeating guitar melody somewhere before, but again, I don’t know the genre that well, so I could be making it up. Again, for taking the economical approach, this isn’t bad, but I don’t get terribly excited over it, either. It sounds like there’s been some resolution here and the relationship is “off” for good, though whether they’re transitioning to “friends with benefits” is up to interpretation (note the line where she invites him over when she’s “two drinks in”). The premise of the song is self-explanatory, and poses a logical construct that the geek in me wants to write as “Friends XOR Lovers XOR Nothing” just for clarification, because Mayer insinuates that you can never be more than one of these at a time. It’s a premise that I disagree with, since I think lovers who can’t also be friends are doomed to go through… well, exactly the kind of crap John’s spent most of the album describing. Clearly he learned a different lesson from it all, though, as this song sluggishly wriggles its way toward the finish line – and then has the audacity to go for a victory lap in which John gives us a rather weak vamp – “Anything other than yes is no/Anything other than stay is go/Anything less than ‘I love you’ is lying.” OK, so actually I like that last line, because it does demonstrate some sincerity and not wanting to do it half-cooked, but once again, we’ve got elementary rhyming 101 dragging down what’s supposed to be the powerful final thought that you’re left with at the end of the album. All told, the track drags on for six minutes – it’s got good intentions, but so-so execution.
Given the three options laid out in the final song, I’m going to have to choose “nothing” as far as my future relationship with John Mayer’s music is concerned. I’ve lost all interest. I’ve realized I don’t know him at all. I don’t love the songs the way I used to when a surprising chord change or a little snippet of guitar goodness would grab my attention, and I no longer relate to what the guy has to say as a friend would – he’s not someone I’d want to sit down and chat with about life, love, and the meaning of it all. So, no to “lovers”, and no to “friends”. John Mayer will obviously never even be aware of this rejection given the millions of other adoring fans he’s amassed, so it’s not like I expect this to hurt his feelings or anything. But I’ve got other musicians and songwriters to keep up with who actually demonstrate the chops that they’re acclaimed for having, and who actually write stuff that I relate to. So after Battle Studies, I’m sending up the white flag and moving on.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Heartbreak Warfare $1
All We Ever Do Is Say Goodbye $0
Half of My Heart $1
Who Says -$.50
Perfectly Lonely $0
War of My Life -$.50
Edge of Desire $0
Do You Know Me $1.50
Friends, Lovers or Nothing $0
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.