Mayer gets intimate in ‘Battle Studies’

By Sarah Rodman
Globe Staff / November 17, 2009

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Heartbreak can be a songwriter’s best friend, and judging by the detailed and exquisite sadness radiating off of “Battle Studies,’’ John Mayer has clearly been getting acquainted.

But more importantly for listeners, the pop heartthrob is finding ways to express his unpleasant romantic discoveries - about his exes, himself, and the world - in songs that are moving, funny, and painfully true without invoking cutesy bubblegum lyrics, or sounding, too often anyway, like a precious wussy.

As he did on his 2006 leap forward, “Continuum,’’ Mayer, with help from drummer and co-producer Steve Jordan, continues to strip away the twinkly radio lacquer of his earlier work without sacrificing his pop sensibilities.

Lead single “Who Says,’’ a compact slip of rolling and tumbling acoustic charm cut from the Paul Simon cloth, is a catchy, mildly defiant ditty about a moderatedly debauched road life. But between the lines lies an honest question about what that life means to Mayer as he gets older. A Brian Wilson wistfulness lingers in his falsetto on “All We Ever Do Is Say Goodbye,’’ as a sense of resignation wafts off the isolated and icy piano riffs and oozing guitar line. In “Half of My Heart,’’ which descends from the Lindsey Buckingham school of pop and pathos, Mayer admits to clinging to a love while knowing he isn’t giving his all. It’s a sentiment people aren’t fond of hearing in real life but makes for honest songwriting. (Taylor Swift provides backing vocals.)

The line between ache and desperation can be wafer thin, and when Mayer teeters into the latter territory with “Edge of Desire,’’ it can be tough to listen - be it autobiography or fiction. Under better musical circumstances - aside from a luxuriously melancholy guitar solo, the track is pretty drab - it would be easier to digest his confessions of fear and confusion. The same lack of bite infects the gauzy, midtempo tunes that abut “Edge.’’ Redemption comes on the moody “Assassins,’’ in which his guitar slices through like piano wire to the throat.

But even when the proceedings threaten to get turgid, the intimacy of Mayer’s expression never wavers, and in many ways that’s the album’s greatest victory. All but the most dedicated tabloid observers should have no trouble blotting out visions of Mayer’s personal exploits and recognize the ways that this “Battle’’ is hard fought.

Sarah Rodman can be reached at