Music

John Mayer Makes Eighties Slickness Seem Weirdly Heartfelt on 'Sob Rock'

No one is more aware of what people think about John Mayer than John Mayer himself. The title of his eighth studio album acknowledges past accusations of sad-boy mopery. The muted pastels of the throwback cover art, complete with a simulation of the “Nice Price” sticker that Columbia Records used to slap on its bargain LPs, dares you to call him a purveyor of slick, dated studio-rock. 

Is this self-deprecating? A jab at critics? Either way, the self-consciousness of the packaging is notably absent from Mayer’s music itself. He may come off glib in interviews, but he’s either blessed or cursed with an inability to preserve any ironic distance from his material, so what might seem like genre exercises from a flashier performer sound as heartfelt as diary entries. The guy can’t even sing a cliché like “the road keeps rolling on forever” insincerely. 

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Mayer is a sly craftsman and a virtuoso chameleon on guitar, adept at mimicking disparate styles. A booming drum intro announces the lead track, “Last Train Home,” which sounds like a historical recreation of a forgotten Eighties soundtrack cut, complete with a few economical period-appropriate Eric Clapton guitar bursts. The veteran Chicago hip-hop producer No I.D. collaborates with him on the sleek pop-funk of “New Light.” And on the disillusioned “I Guess I Just Feel Like,” Mayer solos with the Jerry Garcia-like tone that earned him his job touring with the Grateful Dead. 

Mayer has assembled some classy accomplices for Sob Rock. Producer Don Was made his name in the ’Eighties and Nineties helping middle-aged rockers like Bonnie Raitt and the Stones adapt to contemporary styles without going overboard. Smart country-pop groundbreaker Maren Morris contributes fitting harmonies. And as session men go, both his core touring band, bassist Pino Palladino and drummer Aaron Sterling, and Greg Phillinganes, the keyboardist who appeared on both Thriller and Songs in the Key of Life, are the cream of the crop.

Lyrically, Mayer can be bitter, complaining “You shoulda been sad instead of being so fuckin’ mean” on “It Shouldn’t Matter But It Does,” or philosophical, quipping “Hurt me once I let it be/Hurt me twice you’re dead to Me/Three times makes you family” on the unfortunately titled “Why You No Love Me,” or even hopeful on “Til the Right One Comes.” But uniting these different moods, and the different styles in which Mayer dabbles, is the effortless warmth in his voice, which never puts too much weight behind his heartbreak or his happiness. He sings like a man who knows his place in the world.

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