Despite John Mayer’s claims that his newest album would deviate from his older work and exhibit some experimentation, Battle Studies does not live up to this prelude — it’s about 45 minutes of Mayer’s usual defining vocals and traditional blues-rock-pop sound. In fact, one of the only bold moves Mayer made for Battle Studies was donning a new, gravity-defying hairstyle for the album cover.
But as single “Who Says” demonstrates, the conventional approach works for Mayer. Blasé, honest and simple, “Who Says” dares the world to try and control Mayer if he wants to “plan a trip to Japan alone” or just “get stoned.” His sultry vocals and bouncy, teasing guitar twangs play off each other in a classic Mayer fashion. His comfort with this style is evident — the combination works, he knows it and it comes through in the genuine nature of the tune.
Jaunty “Half of My Heart” further exhibits Mayer in his element. Featuring delicate embellishments on electric guitar and in the backup vocals of Taylor Swift (her voice echoing Mayer’s repetitive declarations that he “can’t stop loving you”), “Half of My Heart” stays true to Mayer’s style, and its unvarying acoustic guitar melody never gets boring.
“Perfectly Lonely” and “Friends, Lovers or Nothing” similarly present Mayer at his best, adding more electric guitar and keyboards to the usual acoustic guitar and drum formula. The dense instrumentation on the track contrasts with Mayer’s straightforward vocal tone and message (“Friends, lovers, or nothing / We’ll never be the in between / so give it up”) in a powerful way.
Some tracks, like “Edge of Desire” and “Do You Know Me,” demonstrate what happens to a song when the balance between Mayer’s vocals and instrumentation goes askew. In the former, an incessant hi-hat beat detracts from Mayer’s lilting vocals. “Do You Know Me” similarly suffers from an overuse of crash cymbal — the intricate guitar medley and husky, low-range vocals are overpowered by the obnoxiously constant brushed-cymbal sound. In both songs, the omission or reduction of the percussion elements could have allowed these tracks to breathe.
But no song destroys the Mayer sound as completely as “Assassins.” Beginning with a repetitive and stagnant plinking sound of a thumb piano, “Assassins” progresses into an unsettling rhythm that, when combined with heavy and distorted guitar melodies, Mayer cannot ground with his mellow vocals. The renegade instrumentation takes control, runs rampant and cannot be reined back in — it consumes Mayer, who does not alter his singing style to compete with the monster he created.
What is particularly unsatisfying about Battle Studies is its clunky pacing — Mayer clumps the good tracks in the middle of the album and encircles them with significantly weaker material. In this sense, the standout songs become unjustly strangled by the less-worthy numbers. A simple rearrangement of the album could have made Battle Studies more pleasant to listen to — after all, a bold new hairstyle can’t carry everything.