I think he would do better to study gravity than battle.
I heard of John Mayer when Your Body Is A Wonderland was playing on the radio, but got to know his music more with his Continuum album. I don't think anyone would deny that the man is a great musician, and I would say that Continuum is a masterpiece. From the laid-back electric groove of Vultures, to his flourishing cover of Bold as Love, to the intimate acoustic Stop This Train, the music is delivered confidently yet without overstating anything; Mayer's blues influence shines through compelling guitar solos that are simple yet inspiring.
But what I'm realizing more lately is that, when it comes to music with words, the lyrics of a song can substantially influence my enjoyment of it. I'm a man who believes that words have meaning, and that meaning is important, even in a pop song. And happily, in the case of Continuum, I'm generally able to get on board with the sentiments Mayer expresses. In fact, in some cases I find them quite profound.
Gravity is used as a metaphor in a strikingly honest look at selfish human nature, as Mayer admits that it's our nagging desire for “twice as much” that ends up ruining us. He ends the song with a soulful plea: "Keep me where the light is."
The Heart Of Life is a heartfelt and hopeful message to people who are hurting, that affirms the importance of true friends as a support during trying times: “Pain throws your heart to the ground / Love turns the whole thing around"
And I'm also touched by Stop This Train, which puts into words the fears as struggles that we all face as time and life move inexorably forward, whether we're ready or not. John goes to his dad for advice, who encourages him to press on, to embrace the places that he is led in life, and to see how much he'll learn by the time he's sixty-eight.
Mayer gets political in Waiting On The World To Change, and seems to address religion in Belief, and while I don't agree that doing nothing is a good way to effect change, and I don't think that “What puts a hundred thousand children in the sand” is a level-headed critique of world views in general, these few areas where we differ in thinking are debatable enough that I'm not really offended.
Enter Battle Studies, a later John Mayer album that I decided to purchase considering how much I enjoyed Continuum.
It sounds good, maintaining the bridge between pop rock and blues. As a whole, I found the title to be descriptive of the general tone of the album: a somewhat bleak survey of romantic love as tumultuous, chaotic, and often outright hostile. I think it's fair to address the challenges and drama involved in relationships between men and women, but I was disappointed by what seemed to be an attitude of recklessness and a concession of defeat.
In the first two verses of Who Says, I'm willing to excuse John for his sulky indulgence in smoking a joint in his house alone. But “Call up a girl that I used to know / Fake love for an hour or so”? That's just destructive. The whole theme of this song rings of nihilism, and I can't groove to that.
Half Of My Heart is an innocuous pop-country ditty, but is also a duet with Taylor Swift, upon whom Mayer apparently carried out some of his heartbreak warfare. That leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I guess that's another reason to stay away from celebrity gossip.
Assassin treats love and sex as some kind of combat or hitman job.
And the song that bothered me the most was Edge Of Desire. Mayer uses his skillful songcraft to evoke the ache of an unfulfilled life and the torment of unfulfilled sexual desire. But rather than showing us that sex to fill a void in life is dangerous and an empty remedy, he gives in. He says, “come over... I want you so bad, I'll go back on the things I believe.” What a tragic abandonment of principle and integrity in such a delicate arena, with such high stakes.
There may be some gems that I'm missing in Battle Studies, but from what I've been able to discern, it truly is a heartbreak handbook, as in “An Idiot's Guide To Breaking Hearts.”
I hope that John Mayer eventually returns to some of his earlier, more constructive musings, even as far back as Room For Squares where he ponders:
It might be a quarter-life crisis
Or just the stirring in my soul
Either way I wonder sometimes
About the outcome
Of a still verdictless life
Am I living it right?