Well, that’s an embarrassing way to start this review.
Quite an event last Tuesday. John Mayer finally released his fourth studio album, Battle Studies, and I got to experience hearing brand new, non-live, studio-made, John Mayer-written music for the first time in three years. Pretty exciting stuff for me. And admittedly, I was a bit nervous, as John’s become quite the douche in the last three years, but it turns out my fears were unwarranted.
JM hasn’t branched too far out here. If nothing else, he’s taken a few steps backwards in regards to his other music. But this isn’t a bad thing. His pre-Continuum music is great, so these new songs are really just a nice addition to his body of work. Most of them are anyway. As a whole, Battle Studies isn’t as cohesive as Continuum, in terms of musical style and song quality. The only thing that really does bind most of the record together is a general (I use that term loosely, see Crossroads, Who Says, War Of My Life, none really pertain to the ->) theme of breaking up. Musically, he definitely dabbles in quite a few areas, but as a whole he’s stepping back towards the pop scene. Continuum was just so soulful; soul emanated from every part of that album. Not so here. Overall it’s much more of a pop music, radio-ready type of feel.
OK the songs. If I had my way, I would cut three songs off the record, completely retool one song, and leave the other seven exactly how they are. That’s not the best percentage, but still alright. It’s the middle stretch that is just plain bad. The triumvirate of Who Says, Perfectly Lonely, and War Of My Life really pains me, and Crossroads might be one of the most disappointing covers I’ve ever heard. Who Says sounds like an extension of his a-hole lifestyle set to a pretty little acoustic ditty, which is catchy enough that it’s annoying how bad the song is. Sorry John, but very few of your fans relate to planning trips to Japan by themselves and canceling them at will. Perfectly Lonely is one of those empowerment songs that I find so inane. It’ll be the one at concerts that all the lonely people pump their fists to and sing along too loudly with, trying to fool themselves and everybody around them that they’re so happy they’re alone. Annoying. I know this might seem like a dumb thing to say since I’m married but why can’t he write one song about actually finding love or being in love where there aren’t any negative little asides, or “this is great BUT…”? Just one John. I only want one.
Crossroads is a real bummer for me too. When I saw this on the track list I was psyched because of how great his Hendrix cover was on Continuum. This cover sounds like he pulled it directly from Guitar Hero. I seriously think Steve Jordan sat down to a drum kit with four parts, each a different color. And the guitar tone is so awful, which only makes the solo worse than it already is. This is just a really uninspired cover, which bums me out because usually JM does covers so well (see Free Fallin’, Bold As Love, Kid A from the old days). He chooses awesome tunes, not always the most well-known, and makes them even better, injects them with something unique. This is just sonic mush. Wish you could have a re-do on this one John.
But if you listen to the good parts of this record, he really starts to shine again. The strongest element of this whole album is his voice, but only when it’s bolstered by the melody lines he sings. He has seemed to hit on really quality melody lines, that are not only gorgeous, but fit his voice perfectly. Assassin and Heartbreak Warfare are the two I’m thinking of most here, but also listen to All We Ever Do Is Say Goodbye, Edge Of Desire (anybody else think this song sounds like Jimmy Eat World circa 2004?). All beautiful melodies.
Assassin is shaping up to be my favorite song off the album, and thank goodness it’s smack dab in the middle to break up all those crap tunes. This one really demonstrates the little things that put John Mayer above most pop artists recording today. Just like 95% of popular music, the first chorus of this tune is underlined by some pretty simple power chords. It’s at 3:41 when the second chorus starts right after his guitar solo, holy cow he adds just the second note of each chord to each chord he plays and it elevates the foundation of the song to a whole new level. It’s a subtle addition but it really distinguishes it from the humdrum music that we hear so often.
And I have to note the bass playing here. Bassist Pino Palladino is out of this world. To get the full effect of his playing, throw on some headphones, turn them up just a bit more than you normally would, and listen to the introduction up through the first chorus. Listen to the bass. Pino is the most controlled bass player I’ve ever heard. No matter how many notes he seems to bounce over, every single one fits within each chord and leads the listener along without them knowing where we’re going. Listening to this song for the first few times, I could never predict what was coming next in the bass line. So great. Pino kills it here.
One quick note about Half Of My Heart, almost certainly coming to a radio near you very soon. The song is fine, nothing too special, but the back-up vocals are sung by freakin’ Taylor Swift. Alright JM, I’ve got beef with this. She’s got a fine voice, clear and pretty, but she’s hardly even in this song, and the only reason I can really see that you added her in this is to grab a few new country music fans and tween fans who weren’t at music-purchasing age when Mayer released Wonderland eight years ago. At the writing of this, Half Of My Heart was at #7 on the iTunes Singles chart. And I guarantee it’s only because the title is followed by (with Taylor Swift). And with all of his clout, all of his street cred in the music community, he gets Taylor Swift to guest on his record? The man has worked with Billy Preston, B.B. King, John Scofield, Herbie Hancock, is friends with Buddy Guy and Eric Clapton, and he gets pop-tween-queen Taylor Swift to guest on his record. Just kind of a bummer to me.
Other random thoughts: War Of My Life wins the award for gayest John Mayer song title, while Friends, Lovers Or Nothing is definitely a great track and it will be a great show/encore closer. In very much the same vein as I’m Gonna Find Another You, just more Beatles-ish. Bold move too, leaving out that ol’ oxford comma.
So I don’t think it’s not his best work, but overall it fits well into his canon. And now that I’ve had a week with it, I can say that it’s worn well already. The first two days I gave the songs I didn’t like five or six listens to give them a chance and then started skipping them, the last few days they’ve all definitely grown on me. So go buy it. Support good music, because the month of November will have seen album releases from Weezer, 50 Cent, Bon Jovi, Fall Out Boy (a greatest hits compilation, are you kidding me?), Lady GaGa, Adam Lambert, Rihanna, and Lil’ Jon. When the music scene is that bleak, you’ve got to stand up for what’s right and good in this world. John Mayer might not completely fit those two adjectives, but he’s far better than all of the other stuff I just listed.