One of the earlier “name artist” interviews in my writing career came when I spoke with Peter Cetera about the release of his fourth solo album, World Falling Down. During our talk, he complained about the way he’d been pigeonholed as a soft rocker, and blamed the label for continually releasing ballads as singles when he really wanted to mix things up with more uptempo tracks. It was the fall of 1992, and I think Cetera understood the shift that was taking place in music; he joked about not being on MTV anymore, mused about strapping on his bass and going back on tour, and said he missed the “yuks” of being in a band like Chicago.
As it turned out, World Falling Down was Cetera’s final album for Warner Bros., and when he resurfaced three years later with One Clear Voice, his debut for the short-lived indie label River North, I expected to hear the sound of an artist freed from his corporate shackles — not a rock album, certainly, but something that would reflect more sides of his personality. If you’re one of the few people who’s ever listened to Voice, you know this isn’t the case; it’s as mannered an album as Cetera’s ever released, as is its 2001 follow-up, Another Perfect World. As ambivalent as he might have seemed about his image, Cetera’s either unwilling or unable to break it. For the sake of his emotional well-being, I hope it’s the former — and I can’t help but think of Cetera whenever I listen to John Mayer.
If you hate John Mayer’s music, then the Cetera parallels probably seem obvious — what’s “Your Body Is a Wonderland,” if not a 21st-century update of “You’re the Inspiration”? — but Mayer doesn’t remind me of Cetera because they’ve both built fortunes out of slick, romantic songs that pander to our most sentimental instincts. Lots of artists have done that. Few of them, though, have seemed to struggle with it as much as Mayer.
It’s pretty much always been this way for Mayer. His debut EP, Inside Wants Out, was a sensation with acoustic-based singer/songwriter-loving Awarestore customers in the early aughts, but he was quick to caution everyone who loved it that he really wasn’t “that guy” — that Inside‘s bare-bones, deeply sensitive sound had more to do with budget restrictions than his real musical outlook. I saw him play a club date during this period — in fact, I flirted with the idea of booking him for a theater show for a little while — and it was clear how far he wanted to be from Inside: He was playing as part of an electric trio, covering Stevie Ray Vaughan, and generally giving in to the sort of blues-based guitar wankery that can be positively deadly when attempted by performers without sufficient chops.
Mayer has chops. Even his biggest detractors are usually forced to concede this. But John Mayer the songwriter is a completely different animal than John Mayer the instrumentalist, and this disconnect has always given him, and his audience, fits. He comes across like a guy who desperately wants us to know that when he’s alone in his room, he’s wailing on his axe — but every time he sits down to write a song, he sounds like a faded Xerox of Paul Simon’s Hearts and Bones. Well, not every time; once in awhile, he stops wrestling with himself long enough to give in to his inner Cetera and write an adult contemporary mainstay like “Wonderland” or “Daughters.” Far more often, however, he tries to have it both ways. Lyrically, he tends to take the position of a cuddly jerk who can’t stop breaking hearts (or having his own heart broken — awww!), sneaking in vaguely topical themes (Continuum‘s “Waiting on the World to Change”) and slightly edgy references (the doobie-smoking line in current single “Who Says”); musically, though, his albums trade edges for languid grooves and smooth surfaces. Kind of like a musical bowl of slow-boiled oatmeal, only half as satisfying.
People really like oatmeal, though. Hell, I have a bag in my pantry right now — and that’s why Mayer’s fourth full-length studio album, Battle Studies, doesn’t deviate one whit from his platinum formula. In the context of his studio work, it’s essentially a slightly more overtly commercial first cousin to 2006’s Continuum — it doesn’t scream for radio as loudly as Room for Squares did, but it doesn’t sound as conflicted as Heavier Things, and it tosses in a few pop hits-in-waiting, like the Taylor Swift duet “Half of My Heart.” (Here’s hoping it’s a hit, anyway; it’ll make a great title for Mayer’s eventual best-of.) As always, Mayer goes out of his way to remind us he’s a guitar hero at heart, but he’s careful not to offend; nominal showcases for his instrumental prowess, such as “Assassin,” have a distinctly relaxed, Journeyman-era Clapton vibe, and his muted take on Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads” is polite enough to fit on the soundtrack of any Ryan Reynolds romantic comedy.
This will all sound perfectly dreadful to anyone who already hates Mayer’s music, but so what? He’s proven that there are at least two million people who like him just the way he is, and in the current industry climate, that’s pretty goddamn impressive. It’s tempting to wish he’d switch from oatmeal to something spicier — Thai food, perhaps? — but I suspect Mayer might actually be happier on some level if he just gave in and wrote his own personal “If You Leave Me Now.” Either way, the middle of the road can be seductively smooth, and if you’ve enjoyed any of Mayer’s previous efforts, you’ll won’t find a single hint of the aggression implied in Battle Studies‘ title. Which is probably exactly what you want to hear.
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