Give Life Back To Music 10.07.13: John Mayer - Battle Studies Posted by Sean Comer on 10.07.2013
"Favorite" isn't always the same as "best." Sure, Continuum stands head-and-shoulders above most of John Mayer's albums for being a pleasure to listen to, but is it really "better than" the album that came after? 411mania's Sean Comer takes a good, long, second listen to Battle Studies to find out.
John Mayer -- Battle Studies
Well-played, John Mayer.
When my guard was down, you slipped behind me without my suspecting a thing and snapped the necks of my plans around 180 degrees.
I sat down initially to write this week's dissection armed with the perceptions and impressions from my very first digestion of Mayer's fourth full-length effort. While they wouldn't have been exactly scathing indictments, they wouldn't have been a fraction as friendly or imbued with my own personal echoes as those of Room for Squares, Heavier Things or particularly Continuum.
Hindsight being what it is, it was truly telling that something felt hollow as I detailed my thoughts. Was I being dismissively ambivalent because I truly perceived Battle Studies as a lackluster album or simply because it falls somewhere beneath Continuum but perhaps just a bit above Heavier Things among my discography preferences?
I listened again to every last note that Mayer had to sing and play throughout the 11 songs. I told you all from the very start that my beloved favorite albums from one artist to the next aren't always the universally-lauded "best" sets each has produced. Hell, Kanye West demonstrated that clearly enough; for the many superlatives that millions have heaped upon My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and my being so ambivalent that I couldn't muster an entire column's opinion to discuss it, my personal favorite will always be The College Dropout while I regard 808s and Heartbreak and Late Registration as his heights of creative brilliance.
Battle Studies will probably never hold a place as my "favorite" album by Mayer. That being said, so far, it's an apex of his mettle as a guitarist, evidence of his clarity and grounded approach as a songwriter and Exhibit A that he may well be his generation's most under-valued, overly derided voice.
RELEASED: Novemberr 17, 2009
There's not a great deal that I could muster saying about cover this time around. It's a simple, black-and-white, head-and-shoulders portrait of a forlorn Mayer. Once more, though, the title does its job well as an overture to the music that awaits: it's an accounting of the slow process suffered when lives crumble and burn as a diseased relationship burns them from the inside out, a post-mortem dissection of the wounds and scars of struggles that never reveal an unblemished victor.
For a change, I can look at a Mayer album in which the lead single doesn't count among the set's weakest songs. "Waiting On The World To Change" might be one of his most pandering, flat moments as a lyricist, and it wasted a pretty solid melody and strikingly soulful guitar. Neither "No Such Thing" nor "Bigger Than My Body" is necessarily a bad song – quite the contrary, they're deserving debut singles in every way – but they remain their respective albums' least remarkable cuts by fairly wide margins. It's just a testament to how well-written everything song on Room for Squares and Heavier Things was, in the end.
"Heartbreak Warfare", on the other hand?
It's a tone-setting, earnest lament. Both sides are so lost in their own pain's begotten desire to see the other wounded in retribution, that each is ultimately too self-involved to take a moment and let empathy reveal the hurt consuming the other. Nothing positive arises from the ashes; every moment, every sharpened word and every inflammatory action just further scorches everything dear around them both – even their memories of one another. Most tellingly, Mayer's a man believing that there's still peace to be had if she'd only join him in laying down arms, Pleading "God only knows how much I'd love you if you let me, but I can't break through it all."
Had Mayer woven these words with the blue-eyed-soul fabric of Heavier Things or Continuum, I truly believe it would've diminished its earnest stitching. There's a layered, polished feel that just seems indescribably apropos as he tailors his tapestry of "clouds of sulfur in the air, bombs are falling everywhere" juxtaposed against "red wine and Ambrien, you're talking shit again."
Throughout the entire album save for a few moments, Mayer makes the guitar an extension of something that his lexicon can't quite breathe life into with lyrics alone. There's a calculated restraint in his playing that finds him saying more with much less, colored with a powerful Eric Clapton-esque tone. By this point, Mayer had shared stages as an honored guest of B.B. King, Buddy Guy and even Slowhand himself, and the whole set demonstrates that he'd absorbed and appreciated a certain sense of timing. He understands that a four notes sustained, timed and bent just so can get a point across more succinctly and more effective than some breathtaking runs spanning hundreds of eighth and sixteenth-notes littered with trills, fret-taps and tremolo.
It's one of the simplest things to understand, one of the most rudimentary, but one of the most quickly forgotten: every song is a statement, and what you play has to be a phrase, an extension of what you're getting across.
"All We Ever Do Is Say Goodbye" is a perfectly poignant, resigned question: if I know how many pieces you'll ultimately shatter my heart into, what's the merit in giving you another chance? Sometimes, it's absolutely true. Some people in our lives will redeem themselves and make something beautiful of such an opportunity to bring something new into a relationship. Others just can't ever see the pattern for what it is and provide an encore of history.
Still, sometimes, it's so difficult to tell somebody "no." Featuring a minor contribution from eventual former Mayer flame Taylor Swift, "Half Of My Heart" is a mid-tempo contemplation of a free-flying spirit spread too thin between the freedom he knows and a love that draws him out of his comfort zone. Both stoke his passions, but he keeps coming back to one matter of guilt: it's not fair to her to live the lie with her that she can ever own the deed to his heart.
It's one of two songs that might very well ring more deeply within me than anything else on the entire album. There's a single line in the album-concluding "Friends, Lovers Or Nothing" that I had to double back and hear again because it struck me so far within: "Anything less than ‘I love you' is a lie." I'd found myself drowning in a state of uncertainty after a stormy tumult rising from my complicated, life-moving feelings for one woman in my life. Every so often, life tests love this way, and we just can't get around it.
That one line wasn't really a revelation to me. I know and own how I feel about her - and probably always will - like I can understand few other things in my life. It's just that everyone, every so often, needs to hear it, say it, write…have it spelled out plainly again, in order to be reminded of everything about it that makes it worth every mile.
It's the fact that I feel that way that's probably always going to create a complication with any other woman that might cross my doorway: chances are, she'll never quite occupy every intimate square of my heart. In all fairness, "half of my heart won't do." Sometimes, our costliest battles lie within, those ones that make tragic collateral damages of the ones far removed from the fires and flames.
"Perfectly Lonely", for this album, is refreshingly positive and satisfied, finding Mayer surprisingly content with a simpler, solitary life's freedom of choice and movement without bearing another's everlasting brand. Then again, there's "Assassin". Apart from being an intriguing and haunting musical composition, Mayer likens his virtuoso ways of stealthily infiltrating and vanishing from a lady's heart and parts a few feet lower to the movements of a silent, well-honed killer's – right up until he's jarred to awareness by a blade to his chest that he never saw coming himself.
It's a beautiful song, but one that it's hard for me not find funny. It actually reminds me of one of my closest friends. She and I have often joked that, of the two of us, I'm the one in touch with what should be her own "girlier" nature – ever embracing romance, not especially comfortable with a certain wanton, sporting regard for sex. On the other hand, she's positively predatory.
I had to chuckle one night when she shared her own turning of the tables with me, over a few drinks. Apparently, one of her conquests was able to dig out his cell phone during sex and made himself a little memento. When she realized it, her only thought wasn't necessarily one of humiliation. No, it was rather, as she put it, "It was totally something I would do!"
A song later, "Crossroads" is…well, actually the only song in the whole album the frustrates me in terms of forming an actual opinion.
On the one hand, it's a sacrilege. It's a synthed-up, over-polished turpentine shot of a cover that dissolves and strips away so much dirty soulfulness from Robert Johnson's original and even Cream's standard-bearing cover. It's like rinsing away the Mississippi Delta's mud and burning psychedelic haze from the song's two best-known forebears and liberally applying an iridescent gloss.
On the other…I have to admit, Mayer's solo absolutely cooks. I'm no fan of the dressed-up harmonies whatsoever, but when Mayer cuts loose, there's a sonic sizzle that always leaves me wanting more.
All in all, it's absolutely a superb album. Mayer's metaphors aren't necessarily inventive, but the complete composition with his powerful playing and the way he sticks with a consistent mid-tempo approach almost entirely throughout creates something that sticks with you. I'll always find his first three albums to be the most enjoyable to listen to overall, but I can't deny every way that this is "superior" to them.
It's just that I'm not as organically enthusiastic about reliving this one time and again as I am for Continuum. Think of it somewhat like the chord that "Half Of My Heart" and "Friends, Lovers Or Nothing" struck inside me: sure, the album can captivate my heart's attentions, and deservingly so. Still, it always belongs just a little bit more profoundly to another.
Thanks for stopping by, kids. Never dull your colors for someone else's canvas.