John Mayer's 80s-Inspired ‘Sob Rock’ Isn't Bad

Referencing Toto, Lionel Richie, Prince, and other icons from that decade, the pop guitarist's eighth LP is goofy and self-aware nostalgia.
JT
Chicago, US
July 15, 2021, 11:00am
John Mayer, Sob
Image courtesy of Columbia Records / John Mayer

When John Mayer broke out in 2001 as a gangly, 23-year-old singer-songwriter, he let his nostalgia for the 80s take over a song. “If my life was more like / 1983 / I'd plot a course to the source of the purest little part of me," he sang on "83," a wistful track from his debut LP, Room For Squares

Now, following seven charting albums that sold more than 20 million copies combined, seven Grammys, and two disastrous interviews that his reputation has yet to fully recover from, Mayer is releasing Sob Rock, an album that gleefully mines sounds from his most formative decade. Its cover art boasts Miami Vice-referencing font and, depending on your frame of reference, the 43-year-old looking a whole lot like Bruce Springsteen on Tunnel of Love, or Eric Clapton on August, or Richard Marx on Richard Marx. Take your pick. 

The LP is a purposeful uncanny valley of era-appropriate ephemera that wouldn't have been possible without Mayer’s immensely successful but totally polarizing career so far. Whether you like him or not, and many people don’t for good reason, Mayer is a talented guitarist and songwriter who makes extremely accessible music. Even if his coffee shop acoustic songs, his occasional blues riff wankery, or the cheeseball press appearance aren’t for you, your favorite artist probably likes him, and he probably likes them too. Remember, Mayer played guitar on Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange (Ocean returned the favor on a Mayer LP in 2013), jams with Dave Chappelle and Thundercat, and even fronts Dead & Company, a band featuring former members of the Grateful Dead. “My instincts as a musician are not exactly my instincts as a listener or a member of the world,” said Mayer to the New York Times in 2017. “But I believe that I am successful because I obey them.” 

Considering his chameleon ways, it’s almost a shock that Mayer didn't get around to a record like Sob Rock until now. Though Mayer made music that positioned him as the answer to Dave Matthews, David Gray, and Shawn Mullins’ adult contemporary on his first album, you can hear him branching out from that template as early as 2003, with the Radiohead and Coldplay atmospherics on Heavier Things. His 2005 John Mayer Trio live album Try! saw him make propulsive blues, followed by radio pop on 2009’s Battle Studies, Americana on 2012’s Born and Raised as well as 2013’s Paradise Valley, and even funk, disco, and R&B on his last record, 2017’s The Search For Everything. Despite all these experiments, John Mayer, for better and worse, has remained John Mayer. Even though you might hear pedal steel on one song or jazz horns on another, it always sounds like the guy who once wrote “Your Body Is a Wonderland.” 

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His decision, then, to make an album-length tribute to the 80s makes a strange kind of sense—especially given his past hat-tips to the decade in his music and in interviews. Mayer has said he first picked up a guitar because of  the “Johnny B. Goode” scene in Back to the Future; his blues guitar hero Stevie Ray Vaughn made all his best records in that decade, and Mayer has covered and performed with artists like the Police, Eric Clapton, INXS, and Michael Jackson over his two-decade career. 

The songs on Sob Rock, especially the acoustic moper “Shouldn’t Matter But It Does” and the synthy but twangy “Til the Right One Comes,” wouldn’t feel out of place on any John Mayer album. They touch on all his artistic hallmarks: bluesy guitar, breathy vocals, searching and sentimental lyrics that either look for love or hurt with heartbreak. But unlike some of his earlier LPs, he sounds blissfully unconcerned with what people will think. 

Mayer wasn’t always like this. For the first several years of his career, he seemed to care a lot about how he was perceived, and to paint himself as an underdog. His first big single, “No Such Thing,” was about impressing high school classmates who ignored you. (Sample line: "I just can't wait 'til my ten-year reunion / I'm gonna bust down the double doors.”) “I was so tempered in opposition that when the opposition went away, I started to look like a total asshole,” said Mayer in a 2007 GQ interview. “When my first record came out, I was still saying, 'You’ll see. Check out what I did. Eat it.' It gave me this reputation for being really arrogant.” At first he wanted to prove the doubters wrong, but then, as his star rose, he wanted to make sure people didn't think he was an asshole. 

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That didn’t work. In 2010, promoting his obnoxiously titled LP Battle Studies, he ended up coming off horribly in a pair of interviews, with Playboy and Rolling Stone. Mayer revealed private and personal details about his famous exes, compared his penis to the white supremacist David Duke, and even used the n-word. He apologized, but the damage was done. 

For most of the 2010s, Mayer largely remained out of the spotlight. He stayed quiet, for stretches quite literally, because of a health scare involving granulomas on his vocal cords. In 2012, he moved to Montana. Though his label barely promoted his 2012 LP, Born and Raised, and its 2013 follow-up, Paradise Valley, they were full of solid roots songwriting, with Mayer seemingly unconcerned with scoring another radio hit.

When he finally returned to doing press, for his 2017 album The Search for Everything, he told The New York Times that the introspection worked. “I feel like I have a) done the work and b) been out long enough so that people can believe I’ve done the work,” he said. “It took me five years to go, ‘O.K., come on, let’s go back to the party. You’re not going to make a fool of yourself.” At the same time, something about his music changed. His songs since the controversy have been lower-stakes, and arguably much more interesting. Even when he goes straight pop—such as on Sob Rock lead single “New Light,” a 2018 collaboration with producer No I.D.—it sounds effortless. There is no “Waiting on the World to Change” posturing—just self-effacing lyrics about “pushing 40 in the friend zone,” delectable harmonies, Prince-like guitar work, and many memorable hooks. It may be Mayer's best song. 

He said that the pandemic allowed him to rediscover the era and that he recorded the album mostly at home, with a small cast of collaborators, including producer Don Was. In promoting the album, Mayer has described Sob Rock as “the only record I’ve made that I listen to recreationally.” 

It's a fun, breezy listen. “Wild Blue” has a Dire Straits-like swagger, while “Why You No Love Me,” a song horrifically titled after an outdated meme, actually isn’t bad and feels like Hall & Oates’ “Sara Smile.” And although “A Shot in the Dark” and “Carry Me Away” live up to the many keyboard ballads they take cues from (see: Phil Collins, Lionel Richie, Bonnie Tyler), there are points where Mayer goes a little over the top: The synth line on “Last Train Home" is clearly a reference to Toto’s “Africa” (percussionist Lenny Castro plays on both records), but the melody is so similar it’s distracting and grating. Still, the pastiche could’ve been worse: Mayer could’ve done a duet with one of the Stranger Things kids or wrote a song about a John Hughes movie. 

Because this dated, cheesy brand of 80s pop music is meant to be played in a crowded stadium, or at full blast in a convertible en route to see a Boz Scaggs concert, it’s easy to see why Mayer gravitated toward it in isolation. There’s something interesting about how communal arena-pop of that decade became a vessel for Mayer’s introspective, intimate lyrics. And given that he recorded it in a pandemic, it’s no wonder he called it Sob Rock, even though that name sounds like Zoomer pandering. 

Mayer is no longer one of pop’s biggest stars, and it's clear that he's not trying to become one again. “The only hits I’ll have left in my life—because there are great hit writers, but I will not go into a room with them—are luck songs,” he said in a 2017 interview with The New York Times. Even if it’s totally goofy at times, who could have known that he would make the most likable music of his career without trying to be liked?