Its title suggesting both a hard-fought, scarred perspective and a depth of insight and experience that its soporific, one-note song cycle utterly fails to provide, Battle Studies stands as a major regression for John Mayer. Claiming to have drawn inspiration from the ‘70s-era rock of Tom Petty and Fleetwood Mac, Mayer more often sounds as dull as Bread or Kenny Loggins on songs like “All We Ever Do Is Say Goodbye” and “Assassin.” With his asthmatic, monotonous croon and his obviously Auto-Tuned falsetto, Mayer simply doesn’t have the vocal chops to pull off the soul-singer routine he attempts on “Perfectly Lonely” and “Edge of Desire,” on which he makes the line “I’m just about to set fire to everything I see” sound like the emptiest of threats.
His voice as a songwriter also lacks versatility: It may be common practice for blues songs to repeat a single line in lieu of a traditional pop hook, but blues songs typically rely on the conviction in their production and performances to give weight to those repeated lines. “All We Ever Do” and “Perfectly Lonely” fail to develop their central conceits, making their repetitiveness come across as laziness. There’s simply no character to any aspect of the album. Even the cover of Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads” sounds like a rote Stevie Ray Vaughan exercise, and the duet with Taylor Swift, “Half of My Heart,” is a non-starter (though Swift’s attempts at harmony vocals make Mayer sound like some kind of powerhouse).
Given Mayer’s rakish public persona, his repeatedly proven guitar chops, and even some of the flashes of real grit he showed on Continuum and John Mayer Trio’s Try, it’s clear that he’s capable of far more than this. What’s most puzzling and disappointing about Battle Studies, then, is that its banality seems like a deliberate choice.