John Mayer’s Empty 1980s Excess

Right off the top, it needs to be said: great merch. Beautiful merch.

John Mayer’s “Sob Rock” era comes with an aesthetic both pristine and sublimely ridiculous: rich Florida retiree in the 1980s, Alessandro Mendini, the Sony Discman, proto-“American Psycho,” near-peak cocaine. Teal and lavender. Slender sans-serif fonts. On the album cover, Mayer wields his guitar like a phallus.

These are detailed signifiers, an advertisement for a familiar kind of casually louche rock excess — not the rowdiness of hair metal or the maximalism of prog, but the slick unctuousness that heralded the arrival of the yuppie. They suggest notionally angsty rock to listen to in your imported German convertible.

As retro costume choices go, it is an apt one for Mayer, who in the last decade has largely been musically at sea as the blues-pop of his younger years has drifted with no anchor in the Drake era. The conceit of “Sob Rock,” Mayer’s eighth studio album, offers an opportunity for, if not a contemporary context, at least a context.

And yet for all the stylistic cosplay of the album’s visual presentation, very little of this aesthetic is in the songs, which are mostly eminently fine, occasionally oh-he-really-pulled-it-off nostalgic and more often dour. “Sob Rock” sometimes crackles with the frisson of a performer cracking the code on a well-worn style, but more often displays just how challenging it is to build a flashy house on a weak foundation.

Mayer has come this far by being a virtuosic guitar player, a fine songwriter and a largely uninspiring singer. None of that changes on “Sob Rock,” which teems with limp lyrics, blunt emotional broadsides that defy deconstruction. “It shouldn’t be easy/But it shouldn’t be hard/You shouldn’t be a stranger in your own backyard,” he declaims on “Shouldn’t Matter but It Does.” On “Shot in the Dark,” he laments, “I don’t know what I’m gonna do/I’ve loved seven other women and they all were you.” “Why You No Love Me” repeats the title phrase, the plea of a child, ad nauseam, past cute and cloying all the way to irksome.

Throughout the album, Mayer’s singing is utterly convictionless. His syllables are indifferent, blasé. On “Shouldn’t Matter but It Does,” he sometimes sounds like he’s leaving lyrical place holders he never returns to.

Where “Sob Rock” comes alive, as it were, is on the song outros, which nod to the sort of musicianship that has made Mayer a cognoscenti favorite and a seamless inclusion to Dead & Company, his primary musical outlet of the last half decade. There’s a saccharine twinkle running throughout “New Light,” and the end of “I Guess I Just Feel Like” is thick with appealingly dusty guitar.

“Sob Rock” — produced by Mayer with Don Was, a stalwart of ’80s and ’90s adult rock who’s worked with Bonnie Raitt, Bob Dylan and more — is full of throwback musical nuggets (“Last Train Home,” “Wild Blue”) designed to trigger old pleasure centers. That extends to the behind-the scenes players, who include Greg Phillinganes, who played with Michael Jackson, Anita Baker, Richard Marx and many more; the highly regarded session drummer Lenny Castro; and the bassist Pino Palladino, known for work with D’Angelo and Elton John. (Palladino also played on Don Henley’s 1989 solo pop breakthrough “The End of the Innocence,” a clear touchstone here.)

In places, like “Carry Me Away,” the triumph of the arrangement is potent enough to cloak the brittle lyrical bones it sits upon. But in general, Mayer’s songwriting is resistant to even the most thorough gussying up. And even at its most robust, “Sob Rock” is placid, never doing more than winking.

But then, the album is merely a pretense for Mayer. In his recent interview with Apple Music’s Zane Lowe, Mayer said, “I’ve done this for long enough that the idea of just a single layer offering doesn’t excite me anymore.” Which is to say: the songs are not enough. Maybe they never were.

When it comes to all the associated ephemera of stardom, though, Mayer — a collector of rare watches, Japanese clothing and other sartorial obscurities — is taking as meticulous an approach as the merchandising maven Travis Scott. The album cover was designed by Jeremy Dean (who makes wildly creative Grateful Dead bootlegs and, because of Mayer, official merch for Dead & Company), and the T-shirts call back to advertising for hi-fi stereo systems of the 1980s. Mayer also collaborated with the nü-hippies of Online Ceramics for limited-edition shirts. The style is corpo-progressive, so on-the-nose ahead-of-the-curve it verges on tasteless, then rounds the corner right back to refined.

In 2021, being a full-service brand has become fully integral to pop stardom, and this approach to physical product allows Mayer a way to participate in that ecosystem while making music that has nothing to do with it. All of which means that at this point, a decade or so past when he regularly scored hit singles, enjoying John Mayer may have not all that much to do with enjoying John Mayer songs.

And even if Mayer’s choices are specific and a bit outré, they’re not audacious. The era he’s chosen to inhabit has limitations. Even in their day, these reference-point songs weren’t quite serrate, or scabrous — they were the globular middle. Now, three-plus decades on, they are the stuff of innocuous background music, the sorts of songs that generate passive revenue for their publishing owners.

But maybe this is exactly the slipstream Mayer is hoping to melt into. I’m pretty certain I heard “Wild Blue” in a Staples yesterday. Couldn’t be sure, though.

John Mayer
“Sob Rock”
(Columbia)

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