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John Mayer Pines for a Girl, but Hankers Even Harder for the ’80s, in ‘Sob Rock’: Album Review

John Mayer winks through his tears in this high-concept pastiche, finding the soft (-rock) spot between early-MTV-era parody and pure earnestness.

album review

John Mayer’s new album seems like the material of which Grammy nominations are made — but the question is, should it be up in a pop or comedy category? Not that “Sob Rock” is outrightly comic at its earnest songwriting core, but everything else about it provides at least a gentle nudge to the ribs, starting with the very overt slap to the knee that is the cover art and the funniest marketing campaign in recent music history. That campaign is really inextricable from the new record itself, a dare that invites you to enter the album already having laughed till you’ve cried, then stick around for a less ironic dab at the eyes.

So, is it possible to wink and cry at the same time? That question may not get definitively settled by “Sob Rock,” because Mayer has done such a good job of following through on his ’80s-pastiche conceit that it’s not always easy to forget that you’re listening to a sort of semi-comedic art-piece (or a “shit-take,” as Mayer referred to it with Zane Lowe this week) long enough to viscerally connect with the real heartbreak he insists lies beneath the expert conceptual troll. And his performance style is just affectless enough that he’s always tended to be more of a heart-tugger than tearjerker. And yet there’s a real pathos at the bottom of these era-specific arrangements that lends itself to the idea that a lonely boy might seek solace from the troubles of today in the musical comfort food of the yacht-rock era. All of which is to say: The damn thing kind of works.

Mayer has long been one of the most naturally funny guys in rock, but he’s saved it all up for the interviews (or maybe the upcoming talk show, an obvious destiny perhaps about to be fulfilled). So it was nice to see it find some other fruition in the cover imagery and videos and mock-advertisements for the new album. Anyone who is nerd enough to take an interest in period typography, for starters, probably has a newfound love for Mayer thanks to the different elegant but long-gone fonts that have been revived just for the ephemera surrounding this release. And if there were a joke-of-the-year award, it might have to go to the alternate album cover that accompanies the streaming version of “Sob Rock,” taking the already ’80s-steeped iconography of the jacket art and slapping an ’80s “The Nice Price” sticker on it… the gag being, in case it isn’t obvious, that there’s no discounted “nice price” quite like completely free. (It might count as a slightly bitter joke for aging musicians who think the turn from sales streaming has killed their livelihoods, though it’s not clear Mayer means this visual gag as a complaint.)

Humor is music has not really been Mayer’s thing, though — aside from non-LP/Internet goofs like last year’s David Geffen-inspired podcast masterpiece “Drone Shot of My Yacht,” which, if there were a just God, would at least be a bonus track on this album. There are exactly two times on “Sob Rock” where the singer lets you see any sense of mirth behind the straight-faced, hangdog mask. One is the stalker-iffic bridge in “Carry Me Away”: “I want you in the worst way / Is the gate code still your birthday.” The other instance is in “Why You No Love Me,” when Mayer outlines exactly how heartache strangely makes the heart grow fonder: “Hurt me once, I let it be / Hurt me twice, you’re dead to me / Three times makes you family.” (Puzzle over that if you will, but you get what he means.) Actually, the title of “Why You No Love Me” itself is pretty comical — maybe it’s an homage to linguistically questionable hits of the era in question like “Yah Mo B There.” Yet Mayer has insisted in interviews that it’s a deadly serious tune, reflecting the most basic sentiment we feel in the throes of abandonment. He’s making a joke, but a not-a-joke, out of how loss and insecurity return us to an almost pre-verbal state of incomprehension. Listening to the album on repeat, I’ve gone back and forth on whether “Why You No Love Me” is one of the worst songs ever written or a small act of genius. Mayer, “shit-take” guy that he is, had to be just begging for that indecision.

Other than these examples, “Sob Rock” is pretty earnest stuff… with the earnestness extending to both the heartfelt lyrics and how unironically MVP session guy Greg Phillinganes is recreating the kind of synth parts that dominated the early MTV era. Mayer’s primary concern here is the same as it was on the less blithely presented “The Search for Everything” in 2017: the one that got away, maybe with an extra emphasis now that he’s in his 40s (or “pushing 40 in the friend zone”) on whether they’ll all get away.

It’s always been interesting how Mayer has been publicly perceived as a ladies’ man yet so credibly presents himself as lonesome and lost in song. He wants you to know that he’s a piner, not a piker. He reconciles both in a telling line like “I’ve loved seven other women and they were all you,” but for the most part, this is an album you might be able to relate to whether you’re a wealthy and handsome rock star who’s had an unlucky stretch or somebody who’s spent a decade or two back in a parental basement building shrines to that one true lost love. He takes some blame but has a great verse about how extended singleness can be as much luck of the draw as anything: “Well the lucky in love called themselves winners / And losers are sinners who have gone astray / As if I woke up lonely one morning / Looked around and decided I would stay that way.” That’s a statement on behalf of all of those who wish to be paired, and find themselves feeling victim-blamed, that’s no joke.

There are weighty feelings here, in other words, but it all feels featherweight — and not unbecomingly so — as Mayer drifts back to the ephemeral sounds of his childhood. Not every song here feels designed as an affectionate take on the ’80s; three of them are singles that date back to 2018-19, and it’s not clear if he had then yet settled on the musical concept for the album that would arrive in 2021. One of those previously released songs, the album-concluding “All I Want is to Be With You,” sounds slightly U2/”All I Want is You”-inspired (without the orchestra), so that’s sort of an ’80s take. But in another early single that dates back a few years, “New Light,” it couldn’t be clearer that he was on a path toward the softer, yacht-ier side of things, with a vintage synth curlicue as punctuation and, halfway in, a funk guitar part that turns it into the mid-’80s version of a bop. He’s not indulging himself a lot as a guitarist here, obviously, but the Side 1 closer, “Wild Blue,” allows him to do a little extended soloing and indulge a fairly clear affection for Mark Knopfler.

“Sob Rock” is undoubtedly an exercise, and fans and detractors alike will have some fun with the album’s reverse engineering and debating the question, exercise in what, exactly? Coming up with an album that would be the most likely of anything he could ever do, short of a disco salute, to leave Dead & Co. fans cold?

But even those who aren’t particularly down with the musical concept for the album will have to allow that some of the songs shine through regardless — like the record’s modest highlight, “Shouldn’t Matter But It Does.” Although it isn’t remotely produced like a Nashville tune, it’s a great country-pop song at heart, in which Mayer is, yes, still getting moony over a lover who’s been lost to him for so long that he can lament that “we could have been busy naming baby number three.” (He adds, “I shouldn’t hold on / I shouldn’t leave messages in every little song,” making it clear this is somebody who’s showed up in verse long before this album.) It’s a number that gets to the heart of how most great pop music is about obsessions and problems that don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world, to quote Rick Blaine in “Casablanca.” With a song that gets to the heart of the matter as bluntly as “Shouldn’t Matter But It Does” and some others, it shouldn’t even matter whether they’re dressed up in 1980s gear. Yet it does.