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CD Review: Battle Studies

BY TOMMY MORGAN JR. | NOVEMBER 17, 2009 7:21 AM

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*** 1/2 out of *****

Since at least his second album, Heavier Things, there have been two types of John Mayer. There is the “Daughters” and “Your Body Is A Wonderland” Mayer, who writes catchy, almost too saccharine pop songs, and the John Mayer of the John Mayer Trio, a budding blues legend/guitar god.

On his newest album, Battle Studies, it’s hard to tell which is which.

Songs that seem destined for pop, such as “Heartbreak Warfare” and “Friends, Lovers, or Nothing,” feature him doing some of his best guitar work, while such songs as his cover of blues guitar legend Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads” have a certain pop swagger to their blues.

The result is far from a perfect blend of his split musical personalities. Battle Studies, by the end, is pretty ho-hum, even for the guy who once crooned “if you want love, we’ll make it / swimming a deep sea of blankets.”

Many of the songs on Battle Studies take on a theme of heartbreak as war — a trope that should have died with Pat Benatar’s “Love is a Battlefield.” It’s not hard to imagine Mayer walking around pensively, as Benatar does in that song’s video, thinking about how much love just sucks.

However, with Mayer, it doesn’t really work. On songs such as “Assassain” and “War Of My Life,” it sounds as if he is trying way too hard to be deep, and the lyrics seem forced and trite. An exception to this is the album’s opening track, the bitter “Heartbreak Warfare,” which doesn’t push the war metaphor too far and instead focuses on the heartbreak — where he does his best work. All in all, he continues to share his gift of catchy pop lyrics on this album, but the theme and tone are overdone and ill-fitting.

Musically, he sounds as astute as ever. “Heartbreak Warfare” is catchy and combines the pop and blues of his past work with a U2 feel.

“Friends, Lovers, or Nothing” is also a winner, and does the job of showcasing Mayer’s guitar chops and pop voice at the same time, letting both intertwine and play off each other where they are usually separated by solos.

He does make some odd decisions on this record, however.

On his cover of “Crossroads,” he had the chance to truly showcase his blues abilities, but he falls short. Whatever effects are placed on his guitar on this song give it a decidedly synth-pop feel. It almost sounds as if he passed this song along to the Cure and played guitar over whatever Robert Smith and Company came up with.

Mayer may, however, be the first person to use the steel drum in a song that didn’t end up sounding like the Beach Boys’ “Kokomo.” On “Assassin,” he uses the instrument to create not the feel-good music of a cruise ship commercial but a sort of dreary tension. It’s a sort of exciting turn but definitely a head-scratcher.

With songs such as these on Battle Studies, it’s hard to pinpoint what exactly Mayer is trying to accomplish with the record. Is he going for pop? For blues? A combination of the two? Or is he trying to move in a new direction — Caribbean-infused flamenco, perhaps?

If he is trying to fuse his blues and pop personalities together, Battle Studies is a good start, but some miscues and off-kilter decisions make sure it remains just that.

Tommy’s Picks: “Heartbreak Warfare,” “Friends, Lovers, or Nothing”


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