By Marty Mulrooney
John Mayer has just released his forth studio album. Comprising of 11 tracks, with a total runtime of 45 minutes… I thought this was the safe bet of 2009. I have seen John in concert (I’m seeing him again in January), I have all his albums and I know where he’s at. At least, I thought I did. Battle Studies has completely blindsided me.
Now, I don’t know whether Mayer did this on purpose, but the very first thing you hear on the album are violins playing a single tuning note. I love this, it is so simple yet the way it fades up into Heartbreak Warfare is really haunting. I used to play in a brass band; those initial tuning notes may only last a few seconds, but they resonate and set the tone for the rest of the album perfectly. This is a performance, less individual songs and more a long melody of intertwining stories.
Clouds of sulphur in the air
Bombs are falling everywhere
It’s heartbreak warfare
Heavier Things and Continuum saw John grow as an artist. Here, he has totally matured. And I will be honest, this initial change in direction really annoyed me. I liked his old stuff, and I expected more of the same here.
Yet this album is a real grower. Nightshifts on my crappy part-time job, driving home in the rain… Battle Studies is quietly beautiful, it really seeps in. This is solo car driving music at its finest.
Oh half of my heart’s got a grip on the situation
Half of my heart takes time
Half of my heart’s got a right mind to tell you
That I can’t keep loving you
Oh, with half of my heart
Half of My Heart resonates with guitar points that for some reason evoked Blue Oyster Cult in my mind… Mayer is an accomplished guitar player, yet he never goes too far, never makes it the focus. His singing is in the same vein, understated and emotional, perfectly matching female artist Taylor Swift’s guest vocal. The harmonies are flawless and Taylor has a lovely voice perfectly suited to these kind of songs.
Love or hate the John Mayer, he gives it his all when he performs and actually means what he sings. It shows.
Who says I can’t get stoned
Turn off the lights and the telephone
Me in my house alone
Who says I can’t get stoned
Case in point: Who Says really annoyed me with its lyrics. I almost shouted “Ah ha!” I thought I had my dud of the album. But damn it… the lyrics may annoy me a little just because they slot into a stereotype and sound kinda meaningless at first glance, but Mayer does pulls it back with tinkling piano chords and soft vocals. Strip away the offending words and you still have a great song. Damn!
I even like his cover of Crossroads, bleating digital-piano-demo-track vibe and all. I might as well eat my own words and swallow them: I always say if you cover a song do it differently from the original… he does so slightly weirdly here and against the odds, it works. Impressive.
Had a little love, but I spread it thin
Falling in her arms and out again
Made a bad name for my game around town
Tore up my heart, and shut it down
Moving on, Perfectly Lonely is almost uncomfortably honest… I get the feeling John is all too aware that his exploits have indeed got him a bad name for his game around town. It works: this song is brilliant and the guitar solo rocks… why don’t people do guitar solos anymore? Paired with War of My Life (track 8), this may perhaps be John’s most honest, from the heart album yet.
Sure, most of the songs here don’t have the zip of past Mayer classics like Neon, but I think it was worth it to see this whole new side to a performer we thought we had totally sussed out. And the final song?
Anything other than ‘yes’ is ‘no’
Anything other than ‘stay’ is ‘go’
Anything less than ‘I love you’ is lying…
Friends, Lovers or Nothing is the gem of the album. It begins with a quite simple, enjoyable roundabout of lyrics and musical intervals, before going all Hey Jude on us and repeating a chorus and musical hook so catchy that I couldn’t help but smile. Repeating stuff in a song can suck… most new songs don’t even bother. You need really strong lyrics and musical warmth to keep the momentum going… and this song manages it. Brilliant.
So yes, this is a new Mayer presented to us, flawed but exposed naked and willing to be poured over. Perhaps not my favourite of his albums… yet. As I said earlier on, this is a grower. Truth be told, it is still growing with every listen. Thanks for not playing it safe John, I appreciate it.
8 OUT OF 10