John Mayer

“Battle Studies” (Columbia) -- 4 STARS

“Clouds of sulfur in the air / Bombs are falling everywhere / It’s heartbreak warfare,” sings John Mayer on “Heartbreak Warfare,” the opener on his fourth studio album, “Battle Studies.” With dark lyrics that may at first seem unsettling to those accustomed to Mayer’s usually relaxed tone, violent imagery is quite pervasive on “Battle Studies,” signaling a new direction for the popular singer-songwriter. On earlier releases, Mayer sounds confused but contented, extolling the virtues of young adulthood while simultaneously wallowing in the pitfalls of a quarter-life crisis. On his newest effort, Mayer sounds far more heartsick and forlorn than in his earlier career; however, he spins his grief into melodic gold, putting forth excellent songwriting and poignant lyrics that result in his best album since his 2001 debut “Room for Squares.”

Mayer has always had a clever tongue and keen wit, noticing the idiosyncrasies and quirks of romantic relationships (see 2001’s “My Stupid Mouth”) and the tracks on “Battle Studies” continue to showcase this talent. The album’s best lyrical phrase comes on the bluesy closer “Friends, Lovers Or Nothing,” as Mayer repeats the refrain, “Anything other than yes is no / Anything other than stay is go / Anything less than ‘I love you’ is lying.” On “Assassin,” Mayer compares his failing relationship to a “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” dynamic, singing, “I was a killer / Was the best they’d ever seen / I’d steal your heart / Before you ever heard a thing / I’m an assassin and I had a job to do / Little did I know that girl was an assassin too.” Mayer’s knack for dissecting the nuances of relationships ultimately make his narratives far more captivating this time around.

Yet, though his observations of love’s difficulties may inspire a chuckle from the listener, the lyrics on “Battle Studies” prove much darker and more dramatic than those in his previous efforts. While Mayer has always touched heavily upon heartbreak in his songs, “Battle Studies” arrives on the heels of a very public romance with Jennifer Aniston and a raised celebrity profile. He implements a much more pensive, gloomy tone on this album, aiming to speak from the heart rather than the tabloids. Instead of father-daughter relationships and inescapable forces of nature, he sings of bombs, killers, and arson, all of which serve as metaphors for his lovelorn misadventures.

On “Battle Studies,” Mayer no longer sports the sheepish grin and earnest tone that brought humor to otherwise disheartening songs like the 2001 hit “Why Georgia.” On “War of My Life,” he mourns, “I’m in the war of my life / I’m at the core of my life / Got no choice but to fight till it’s done.” With his new set, Mayer digs deeper into his own soul to expose his own romantic and moral faults. He continues to show his destructive streak on “Edge of Desire,” singing, “Don’t say a word / Just come on and lie here with me / ‘Cause I’m just about to set fire / To everything I see.” No longer a lovably lost post-grad, he has become an introspective adult, and though his tone may be prove less light-hearted, it ultimately makes for more compelling songwriting.

Musically, the album does not break a tremendous amount of new ground, but rather smoothes and refines the sound Mayer has developed over the past few years. The eleven tracks strike a pleasing balance between the acoustic pop of “Room for Squares” and the electric blues-rock throwback of 2006’s “Continuum.” The gorgeous “All We Ever Do Is Say Goodbye,” with its simple guitar strumming, melancholy strings, and stunning vocal harmonies, is the album’s clear standout, sounding like the best ’70s soft rock gem never written. “Do You Know Me” and “Half Of My Heart,” a duet with country-pop it-girl Taylor Swift, surround guitar melodies with light atmospherics and layered vocals, while “Friends, Lovers Or Nothing,” “Perfectly Lonely,” and the admittedly out-of-place cover of Robert Johnson-by-way-of-Cream’s “Crossroads” indulge Mayer’s recent blues-rock tendencies with cascades of electric guitar and hard piano chords.

Mayer does experiment with a few new sounds, but not enough to take him into uncharted territory. “Heartbreak Warfare” features a trippy, electronic groove under light electric guitar notes while “Assassin” incorporates tropical chimes. Fortunately, Mayer’s songwriting is already pleasing enough that he does not have to tinker with his sound in order for “Battle Studies” to be a solid release.

“Battle Studies” proves that Mayer has left behind the heartthrob crooning of “Your Body is a Wonderland.” His new album tackles far more serious, personal issues, and as aresult, he has produced some of the best tracks of his career. Ultimately, the tone behind Mayer’s songwriting can be summed up by a lyric on the first single, “Who Says,” on which he sings, “I can’t remember / You looking any better / But then again I don’t remember you.” Combining a wry sense of irony with a sense of heartbroken anguish, Mayer conveys beauty found in romantic confusion.