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‘Sob Rock’ by John Mayer Review: Not Quite Worth the Tears


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With ‘Sob Rock,’ John Mayer continues to play it safe in his solo career.

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John Mayer performs "The Bones" at the 63rd Grammy Awards.

Photo: Chris Pizzello/Associated Press

July 16, 2021 11:59 am ET

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"Sob Rock," the latest release by John Mayer

Photo: Columbia/Associated Press

In 2010, his tendency to speak off-the-cuff caught up with him in a pair of interviews with Playboy and Rolling Stone, as he made widely condemned comments that were loutish and racially offensive. Mr. Mayer lowered his profile considerably while becoming more adventurous with his musical side projects. He spent a lot of the 2010s collaborating with others, most notably playing guitar and singing in Dead & Company, the touring offshoot of the Grateful Dead led by three members of the original band. But while Mr. Mayer is an exploratory collaborator, his solo work has been safe and down-the-middle. 

His 2006 album, “Continuum,” leaned toward jazz and soul, 2012’s “Born and Raised” leaned toward California folk-pop, and 2017’s “The Search for Everything” leaned toward modern R&B, but these tilts in direction did little to spice up his music’s essential character: mellow rock suitable for adult contemporary radio. Mr. Mayer can’t help but make solidly written, skillfully played songs that only occasionally leave a mark. 

“Sob Rock” (Columbia), out Friday, is a conscious attempt at capturing the synth-tinged sound that veteran rockers were making in the 1980s. In a June interview with the Journal, Mr. Mayer described the record as a balm for a troubled era. “There’s a security-blanket aspect about that sound that reminds me of a safer time,” he said. Though some of the album was recorded during the pandemic, the general approach was in place in May 2018, when Mr. Mayer released the single “New Light,” co-written and co-produced by Ernest Wilson, well known in the rap world as No I.D. It’s a bouncy and effortlessly catchy number that’s also an enormous hit on streaming, closing in on 500 million plays on Spotify. Heard on this collection, it sets a high bar that none of the nine other songs can clear.

The cover of “Sob Rock, with its pastel colors and Mr. Mayer posed by venetian blinds, is rich in period detail. It suggests “Miami Vice” and the Michelob rock of Steve Winwood, Eric Clapton and Genesis, but the record only dabbles in such overt references. “I had to figure out this genetic tightrope walk,” Mr. Mayer told the blog Blackbird Spyplane in an interview earlier this month. “If it has too much retro-DNA, two things happen: I lose interest, and I don’t believe it.” So the ’80s-ness is present, but subtle. Mr. Mayer employs the sonic signifiers of the decade like seasoning—a pinch of digital reverb here, a shimmering chorus effect on his guitar there. Once you listen to it a few times, the concept falls away and you’re left with another pleasant and underwhelming John Mayer LP.

The opening “Last Train Home” is a good example of the stylistic blend he had in mind. The song’s synth line is reminiscent of a chord progression in Toto’s “Africa,” but unlike Weezer—who recorded a version of the latter number a couple of years back and then made a full-length album of covers in a similar vein—Mr. Mayer isn’t playing it for laughs. Instead, it’s a workmanlike midtempo rocker that ultimately could have landed on any of Mr. Mayer’s previous LPs. 

Most of “Sob Rock” comprises light and breezy tunes delivered at an unhurried pace. “Wild Blue” evokes the bubbly spaciness of the Alan Parsons Project as Mr. Mayer tones down his vocal affectations in favor of a more straightforward, hushed delivery. “Shot in the Dark” has the sleek professionalism of a late-1980s Phil Collins ballad like “Another Day in Paradise,” and “Carry Me Away” has an appealing chorus that mixes gently strummed acoustic guitar and chiming piano.

Lyrically, Mr. Mayer mostly sticks to love and loss, but the stakes never seem high—“Why You No Love Me” is lightly goofy, with a title that has been used in online memes and that Mr. Mayer has said refers to the regressive state of being in the depths of infatuation. “I Guess I Just Feel Like” steps away from the focus on relationships to comment on human behavior. “Nobody’s honest, nobody’s true / Everyone’s lyin’ to make it on through,” he sings, though he doesn’t spare himself: “I guess I just feel like I’m the same way too.” It doesn’t add up to anything particularly profound, but the song has one of the record’s many effective guitar breaks, where Mr. Mayer bends and twists the melody into a new emotional shape. 

The closing “All I Want Is to Be With You” drops the record’s relaxed bearing for an arrangement that builds to a singalong chorus. Along with snapping “New Light,” it’s one of the few moments that cut through the torpor of “Sob Rock.” The album seems like a missed opportunity to take some chances and risk embarrassment in search of transcendence. The late-’80s boomer milieu that inspired Mr. Mayer has plenty of laid-back grooves but also flashes of strange brilliance. There’s a grandeur to something like, say, Don Henley’s “The Boys of Summer” that would seem to be within his grasp. But Mr. Mayer, ever cautious in his solo work even as he takes chances elsewhere, can’t quite allow himself to go there

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