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Album review: John Mayer's 'Battle Studies'

November 16, 2009 |  6:15 pm
JOHN_MAYER_240 On the high-contrast black-and-white cover photo of John Mayer's latest studio album, the singer, songwriter and guitarist's hands are pulling at the collar of a thick winter coat. It seems as though he's trying to brace against the onset of frosty conditions; the overall effect is fairly Morrissey-esque.

That's no coincidence -- in themes and tone, Mayer shows a lot in common with the great romantic fatalist of '80s Brit pop: He's "Perfectly Lonely" in the song with that title, and he opens the collection with "Heartbreak Warfare," about the ways we hurt the ones we ostensibly love.

Musically he's exploring the moody territory of acts such as Coldplay and Snow Patrol; at the same time, he displays his debt to guitar heroes including David Gilmour, Eric Clapton and George Harrison.

For the most part, he expresses himself more eloquently through his guitar than his lyrics in the 10 of 11 songs he wrote. (Intriguingly, his version of Robert Johnson's blues classic "Crossroads" puts Clapton's signature blues-rock riff through effects processing that leaves it sounding like a keyboard.)

Why he decided to ape Dave Mathews in "Who Says," his ode to the benefits of escapism during down times, is anybody's guess, but it's set to a lovely country-rock shuffle. "Assassin" stretches the metaphor of a stealth killer too far, while "War of My Life" sets foot on U2's turf -- without the soul-deep passion of the Irish rockers. That deficit leaves many of the songs strangely uninvolving, despite the beauty of his melodies and empathetic production he and drummer Steve Jordan have given them.

The lesson of "Battle Studies"? If you're heading to war or in to love, better to take no prisoners.

-- Randy Lewis

John Mayer
"Battle Studies"
Two and a half stars (Out of four)

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I became a JM fan after hearing Continuum and the John Mayer Trio's album, Try!. As a guitarist, I share many influences with him, from Hendrix, to Clapton, and SRV, and I was impressed to hear how well he was able to channel their sound in his music.

I previously only thought of Mayer as the soft-girly-pop of "Your Body is a Wonderland", but gained respect for him through his insane covers of "Bold as Love" and "Wait til Tomorrow". I then went back a re-listened to his early albums and ended up enjoying them more than I thought I would.

When I first listened to Battle Studies in its entirety this morning, I was a little disappointed. Mayer has taken a step away from the blues-rock of Continuum and gone back to the adult-contemporary/pop-rock sound of Heavier Things. While the sound of Battle Studies is more mature than that of his sophomore album, the guitar lacks the power that I loved on Continuum.

Lyrically, I really enjoy some tracks, such as "Half of My Heart" or "Friends, Lovers, or Nothing" - but I think featuring Taylor Swift on "Half of My Heart" was a bit overkill. Some songs, like Heartbreak Warfare, sound overproduced. I did enjoy the finger-picked, raw sounds of "Who Says" and "Do You Know Me" though.

Overall, I think the album is good and worth adding to my collection, but it is hard to follow in the footsteps of Continuum.

A friend of mine recently told me that he thought John Mayer looks like a middle-aged woman in one of those old Blackglama "What Becomes A legend Most?" ads. Sadly (albeit hilariously), he really does!


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