John Mayer attracts divided opinions.
To some, he’s the brilliant singer-songwriter that has composed heart-wrenching songs in the last two decades. To others, he is the privileged poseur who wrote one of the most generic pop ballads of all time, “Your Body Is A Wonderland”.
Some see him as the multiple Grammy-winning guitarist who has played with B.B King, Buddy Guy and Herbie Hancock, and inspired many millennials to take up the strings. Many regard him as the douchebag who dated a retinue of celebrities and passed unflattering comments about his ex-lovers. He dropped the N-word in a 2010 Playboy interview.
In the last few years, Mayer has rebranded. These days, he tours with Dead And Company, a vestige of the Grateful Dead. He mentors Shawn Mendes and JP Saxe, and makes cameos on songs by Khalid, Leon Bridges and Daniel Caesar. The former “ego addict” interacts with fans on TikTok, endorses K-pop stars covering his songs, discusses wristwatches on Hodinkee, and shines the spotlight on younger artistes like Cazzie David and Cautious Clay.
For the 43-year-old, a new album was long overdue: no LP since 2017’s The Search For Everything, and his last commercially impactful album was 2009’s Battle Studies. Stans wanted another record, and they have COVID-19 pandemic to thank: the lockdown drove him into a state of anxiety which had him writing songs. There was a catch, however: he wanted to make music that reminded him of a more comfortable time in his life.
From the vinyls to the cassettes, the entire rollout and promotion of Mayer’s new record hints at an 80s aesthetic, and not without good reason: he was barely six years old in 1983 when Sting ran around tons of candles in the music video for The Police’s “Wrapped Around Your Finger”, and he wanted to recreate memories of what music sounded like at the time. To aid him on this time heist, he enlists veteran producer Don Was, who worked with Mayer on two of his overlooked albums: 2012’s Born And Raised and 2013’s Paradise Valley.
The 10-track album, curiously titled Sob Rock, starts with “Last Train Home”, a track heavy on drums, bass and keyboards, with vocal assistance from country sweetheart Maren Morris. The writing hints at loneliness and a yearning for lasting love; lines like “I’m out of luck and I’m out of time/if you don’t wanna love me, let me go” suggest that he has only one shot left at finding true love. The song feels like a lovechild of Toto’s “Africa” and Eric Clapton’s “It’s The Way You Use It”, and it’s fitting, because Greg Phillinganes, the keyboardist on this track, toured with Toto in the early 2000s.
Acoustic-driven “Shouldn’t Matter But It Does” is the most emotive song John Mayer has written since “Stop This Train” (off 2006’s Continuum). Regret is palpable as he ruminates on a failed relationship which he can’t seem to get over after half a decade, and when you hear the lines “it could have been always/it could have been me/we could have been busy naming baby number three”, you can’t help but feel for this minstrel.
Tempo goes up a notch with the hearty “New Light”, which, in spite of its drums and bass, is a tad out of place. The keys and percussion return on “Why You No Love Me”, a song whose title may seem infantile to those who are not African – it’s a derivative of pidgin English – and whose hilarious refrain almost drowns out the emotion in the lyrics “hurt me once, I let it be/hurt me twice, you’re dead to me/three times makes you family…”
“Wild Blue” is to Sob Rock what “Gravity” is to Continuum. The songwriting is as Mayer-esque as it gets: “I found myself when I lost you/and you’ll never know the unlikely beauty in letting you go” defines the final stage of processing post-breakup emotions. With an opening pickup reminiscent of Fleetwood Mac, guitar licks that nod to Mark Knopfler (lead guitarist for defunct British band Dire Straits), and a raspy vocal inflection that J.J. Cale would have been proud of, “Wild Blue” is the record’s standout track. Lenny Castro and Sean Hurley’s input on percussion and bass respectively will allow for some rhythmic space to improvise during live sets.
Mayer channels his inner Bruce Springsteen on “Shot In The Dark”, a song that dwells on memories and the desire to rekindle old flames, though lines like “I’ve loved seven other women and they were all you/I miss you in the worst ways/is the gate code still your birthday?” are just as creepy as they are charming. “I Guess I Just Feel Like” is refreshingly introspective in that he ruminates on the state of the world rather than his (poor) luck at love, and there’s a tasty guitar solo to boot.
“Till The Right One Comes” throws you into an 80s Paul Simon music video, amid lyrics that express eagerness to find the perfect soulmate, which makes you wonder whether it’s the same man who exuded cockiness as he yelled “I will beg my way into your garden/and I’ll break my out when it rains” on 2006’s “I Don’t Trust Myself (With Loving You)”. “Carry Me Away” (which was earlier recorded in 2019, but re-mastered to fit the 80s aesthetic) sees Mayer yearning for a woman to rock his world, but it is on the album’s closing track, “All I Want Is To Be With You”, that you witness his growth as a man: he’s no longer the 32-year-old who brags about wanting to go to Japan alone (cue 2009’s “Who Says”), he is less selfish, he wants to fully commit, and he has come a long way from being the philophobic guy who could only love with “Half Of His Heart”.
In 40 minutes, John Mayer succeeds in evoking the yacht rock sound of the 1980s and early 1990s, with music that is heavily nostalgic, albeit tinged with melancholy. The record takes music enthusiasts back to the MTV music videos of the time: Cyndi Lauper wouldn’t stop screaming about how “girls just want(ed) to have fun”, Paul Young complained about an unfaithful lover on “Everytime You Go Away”, and Prince brought down the house on “Purple Rain”. With all the attendant synths, percussion, keys and bongos, Mayer pulls a Marty McFly (a la Back To The Future), deploying his music as a time machine the same way Michael J. Fox’s character in the sci-fi movie headed back to the 1950s to perform with Chuck Berry.
The songwriting on this album is emotive, honest and unpretentious. It does not possess the sophistication or cleverness of his first three albums, but when you are in your early forties, you may not need to communicate with as many metaphors as you did in your mid-twenties.
The production on the record will take all the attention from a thematic perspective – never has a body of work being so blatant about its intentions to pay homage – but full marks must be given to sonic cohesiveness. Critics would argue that the music is too cheesy, derivative and “too comfortable”, but if Quentin Tarantino is allowed to borrow from multiple influences to create his films, John Mayer can be permitted to draw from the sounds that defined his childhood.
Ultimately, Sob Rock lacks the unassailable musicality of Continuum or the brutal self-interrogation of Born And Raised, but it makes up for the pleasant blandness of The Search For Everything, and it possesses all the nuance that Paradise Valley didn’t. It is the most Mayer-esque work that John Mayer can come up with at this point: sad songs, good writing, and gorgeous guitar riffs. Fans yearning for a blues-oriented album will be disappointed, and Deadheads who hoped for more guitar will be gutted.