John Mayer is an artist whom I have quite a bit of respect and a bit of disdain for over the past couple of years. With the recently released Battle Studies, I've been listening over and thinking back on some of his older works while listening to review this album. The end conclusion that I've come up with is Battle Studies is an highly mixed album: one with a strong musical component, but one that is at the same time severely lacking when it comes to substance and variety.
My main complaint with the album, as a whole, is that while Mayer has had an impressive talent curve when it comes to instrumentation, this album dwells far too much on just a couple of themes - loneliness, abandonment; far too much on a 'Woe is me' theme that makes me want to throw the something at the guy. While a themed album that deals with these sorts of things is generally a good thing, I found the tone and feel of this album to be far too depressing. It felt self-pitying and at times, a bit pathetic, which might have been part of the point, but those were never traits that I've found admirable.
To be fair, several of Mayer's songs on this album rank amongst some of his best ones:Heartbreak Warfare, Half of My Heart and a cover of Robert Johnson's Crossroads, while there are couple additional mediocre songs, such as Who Says and Assassin. As the title suggests, a number of songs liken the quest for love as something akin to warfare. As someone who's studied the history of war and gone through heartbreak, it's a pretty unbalanced perspective. I can see this comparison sitting well with the twenty-something crowd, bobbing their heads while listening in their apartment, a nicely sanitized anthem for our generation.
But that is part of the problem: Mayer's sound, while greatly improved over the past couple of years, is too soft and easygoing to meet up with anything close to his album title or some of the thematic material therein. Where Mayer is likening heartbreak to Clouds of sulfur in the air/ Bombs are falling everywhere/ It's heartbreak warfare, there's a disconnect between the sound and what he's talking about. Regardless of whether heartbreak is as devestating as warfare (a debatable topic, depending on one's relationship status), a soft mellow song just doesn't connect the lyrics to the emotions in the song. Here, it just feels like a dud. In 'War Of My Life', Mayer doesn't sound like he's fighting for his life or conveying that sort of song; it feels more like he's strumming along like the rest of the twenty-somethings who think that they know the devestation of war by what they see on the television screen. In the end, it just feels like this album is called in, not like an air strike, but by the $10 pledge for any number of causes that pledge to end the violence, where it really doesn't mean that you're helping the issue beyond missing a little extra cash at the end of the month.