John Mayer Sob Rock Album Review

John Mayer Sob Rock

Photo: Kyle Besler / Shutterstock.com

With 2021’s Sob Rock, John Mayer is one of the latest in a stream of contemporary artists to apply the re-emerging 80s aesthetic to their own sound. But while artists like Dua Lipa, Taylor Swift, and most recently, The Weeknd, are refashioning the sound pioneered by artists like Wham!, Madonna, and Michael Jackson, Sob Rock lands closer to yacht rock territory. Indeed, the smooth production of works from classic acts like Fleetwood Mac, Don Henley, and Steely Dan heavily inform the record.

There’s almost a relief to how low the stakes feel with Sob Rock. With each new record, it seems an artist feels a certain pressure to demonstrate to the listening public why they should still be invested, why they should continue to listen, and why the artist’s expression still warrants a platform in an era where attention is such a highly sought-after commodity. As such, artists will generally spend the press run leading up to an album’s release extolling the virtues of what is invariably their greatest, most personal work yet. This, consequently, sets the artistic bar untenably high, which often results in a disappointment akin to that felt each New Year’s Eve when the night just isn’t the momentous, celebratory occasion one had hoped it would be.

This is why the marketing campaign behind Sob Rock came as such a breath of fresh air. With its retro aesthetic, goofy billboards and record stickers, as well as its patently ridiculous title, the public was thrown almost immediately. But they were also being conditioned not to expect Stravinsky or some other form of high art from what was ultimately a pop record, a distinction it feels the general public often fails to make when critiquing popular works. While this tactic effectively lowered the defenses of potential listeners, Mayer is unflinchingly earnest in his approach to what he has acknowledged is, on one level or another, a little silly. It is because of this the record is able to transcend the constrictions of public expectation, which inevitably come with the territory of being twenty years into a highly successful career as a musician.

Mayer himself has expounded upon this concept in the interviews leading up to the record’s release, explaining that it is more feasible to illuminate the magnitude of what appears to be a small idea, than to condense something grandiose in a way that is both presentable and feels honest. The metaphor used in an interview with Zane Lowe for Apple Music, was that it is easier to fit the universe in a glass of water than it is to fill the universe with a glass of water. This is the concept which fuels Sob Rock, and Mayer’s resolute commitment to the bit is what keeps the proceedings from veering off into utter absurdity.

This commitment comes from a place of honesty, as Mayer has said that he lived the concept of the record in order to draw something out of himself that he was aware would ultimately be perceived differently by those who experienced it. He was correct in this assessment, as beneath the underlying thematic elements, Sob Rock very much retains what has become recognizable as the definitive John Mayer sound.

Musically, the album’s ten tracks went through a litany of iterations before arriving at their final forms, which ironically carry an air of effortlessness about them in their breezy delivery. Acclaimed hip-hop and R&B record producer No I.D. – known for his work with Jay-Z, Kanye West, and many others – collaborated with Mayer in early sessions for the album to varying results. Early concepts for the album included heavy emphasis on synth-pop and electronic music, and while these elements made subtle appearances on the final product, much of the material went to the wayside. One surviving artifact from these exploratory sessions was the album’s lead single, “New Light,” which was released over three years before the release of Sob Rock itself. The track – despite its status as is the most pop and electronic influenced number on the record by a significant margin, as well as its creation and release predating that of much of the rest of the record – never feels out of place in the collection.

The easy-going vibe coupled with infectious melodies and an undercurrent of desperation is a recurring formula throughout the album. The relatively peaceful coexistence of these seemingly conflicting ideas lend credence to the concept of Sob Rock as an experimental art piece, a slapstick setup that perhaps hits a bit too close to home, leaving the purveyor choking back genuine tears through the laughter.

No I.D. wasn’t the only artist to receive an invite to this event, however. Among those tapped to bring their talents to Sob Rock are country superstar Marren Morris, longtime collaborator and ace bassist, Pino Palladino, and keyboardist Greg Phillinganes, an expert in the classic aesthetic who has toured with the likes of Eric Clapton, Stevie Wonder, and Michael Jackson. Another prevalent contributor to the album was longtime Rolling Stones producer Don Was, who sat in the producer’s chair for all but one track, the aforementioned No I.D. assisted cut, “New Light.”

Fourth single “Last Train Home” opens the album, and features a fat, synth-based arrangement that understandably has drawn comparisons to the work of Steve Winwood and Toto. Marren Morris contributes her angelic vocals to the tune which, while musically hopeful, explores a hesitancy to put oneself back out there, as it were, for fear of being hurt again. The implied fear may also be that of wasting one’s time while the clock of life continues ticking. The song also seems to reference the general perception of Mayer’s highly-publicized past behavior and mistakes in relationships, and the subsequent redemption arc which has been steadily building for nearly a decade now. This can be inferred from lines like “I’m not a fallen angel, I just fell behind.”

The ways in which maturity and experience have affected his work thematically, particularly during the production of this album, are not topics which Mayer – who was 43 at the time of the record’s release – has shied away from. With the passage of time, the desire for casual flings and insubstantial connections diminishes, as does one’s patience for people who are uncertain of what they want from a romantic association. A not-so-distant cousin of “Roll It On Home” from Mayer’s previous LP, 2017’s The Search for Everything, the guitar-slinger sounds a little more hopeful this time around, in spite of his advanced age and the precarious state of the world in the current day.

Mayer has stated that the ten songs chosen for the record had been selected prior to the recording process, and expressed a hint of regret at leaving the door open – allowing himself to bring new songs in and cycle other songs out – on his previous album. As such, it was decided that this album would be a more focused effort. This process brought the ten chosen tracks through a vast array of arrangements and stylistic approaches in the studio before the arrangements, as they appear on the record, were decided upon. What one could only surmise was one of the attempted studio arrangements which predated the album, appeared in the form of “Last Train Home (Ballad Version,)” an intimate, slowed down reimagining of the spirited original tune, which Mayer released in the form of a live performance video.

Any sense of hope or casual fun brought about by “Last Train Home” is immediately kneecapped by the album’s second track, the painstakingly beautiful, to-the-point ballad, “It Shouldn’t Matter But It Does.” The song is a highlight of the album, and one of the most poignant tracks Mayer has ever released. The track’s understated instrumentation notably features Mayer’s vocals and acoustic guitar – apparently recorded simultaneously into a single microphone – along with Phillinganes’ wonderfully polyphonic synthesizer playing. Lyrically, the tune retroactively follows the slow dissolution of a long-term relationship and the subsequent knee-jerk reactions to seemingly mundane events which can dredge up painful memories when one is simply trying to get through their own day-to-day existence.

Phonetic bells and whistles are few and far between, as the lyrics utilize meat-and-potatoes vocabulary to tap into a universal hurt, a hallmark of many a proficient writer, and a technique perhaps implemented most often and to optimal effect by Paul Simon. As often is the case in situations such as the one recounted throughout the song, there is no clear resolution, no closure, just a melancholy falsetto which seems to trudge reluctantly into the song’s fadeout. This is seemingly representative of attempting to reestablish one’s footing in the world after losing a piece of themselves and having their worldview dramatically altered. Subtle electric guitar accompaniment makes a brief appearance during this section, and seems to suggest the acquisition of something new – inferentially, wisdom, in this case – to carry along on this new journey.

“Why You No Love Me” has been a divisive track for listeners, with some taking exception to its seemingly inane title and chorus lyric. Mayer has stated that, rather than implying English as a second language, the implication is language itself as a second language. That is to say, the phrasing is intended to channel the fragility and confusion of a child, as this is a state in which an adult can quickly find themselves when faced with the rejection of their very being, along with the hurt and shame that comes with being deemed unsuitable as a companion by a person who, for some time, has served as a cornerstone of your existence.

The tune drifts casually to a Hawaiian-tinged melody rife with sus chords, assisted by the expressive pedal-steel of Greg Leisz (Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, Bruce Springsteen.) The warm, colorful melody operates independently of the lyric, which Mayer has described as the most brutal thing he has ever written. If one doesn’t listen closely enough, it can be easy to get distracted from just how heart-wrenching the song truly is. One lyrical excerpt reads,

“Shattered/ Come to find that none of it mattered/ Empty like the promise you made me/“

A recurring musical theme of the album is the tasteful, understated guitar solos Mayer makes use of throughout. While Mayer’s decision to produce pop music over the course of his career has been met with disdain by some more rock-oriented audiences, his pro-level abilities on the fretboard are very seldom disputed. The respect commanded by Mayer’s musical abilities was solidified when he joined Bob Weir in what is effectively the Grateful Dead as it currently exists, the band Dead & Company. Mayer has repeatedly demonstrated his ability to hang with the greats, performing with the likes of B.B. King, Buddy Guy, and Eric Clapton, who has stated his opinion of Mayer as a master guitarist.

With such substantial chops, the rhythmic and melodic choices Mayer makes, particularly in regards to soloing, are very telling. Choosing to forego blistering showcases of technical ability, Mayer places considerable focus on phrasing and tone for Sob Rock. The solos in these tracks are concise, melodic, and indisputably gorgeous. Much of the appeal of these sections stems from the considerable restraint exercised throughout, with the solo itself acting as a vehicle not only for the melody of the songs, but also for the prepossessing tone – which Mayer undoubtedly developed during his time performing with The Dead – that practically drips with the influence of Jerry Garcia.

One example of these tactics can be found at the tail end of “I Guess I Just Feel Like,” a weary affair rooted in feelings of helplessness and defeat. The song contains some of Mayer’s most moving lyrics, and shows the songwriter’s deft mastery of song structure. Spending much of its time drifting from the root to the fifth and back again, the song’s simple harmonic arrangement provides a broad canvas for the expression of the deeply rooted anxiety and frustrations felt by so many, not only in recent years, but through the course of human history. The song sees its narrator trying to reckon with his own feelings, abstractions which one may struggle to grasp at all, let alone effectively articulate phonetically. The development of the track follows the progression of the processing of these feelings, which early on emerge in declarations such as “the weight of my worries is too much to take on,” and by the end have arrived at “If I go blind I’d still find my way.”

While the mid-song solo acts as a bridge of sorts from defeat to hope, the outro solo seems to find the narrator regaining their fighting spirit. The sharp, melodic phrases seem to snarl in the face of the anxieties expressed by the narrator earlier in the song, a process which sees its beginnings during the tune’s final refrain which rephrases “feel” as “felt,” implying the progressive passage of these heavy emotions. The final solo section as a whole seems to imply a regaining of composure, and the finding of one’s way in the face of insurmountable odds, as referenced in the aforementioned lines in the song’s final verse.

The tunes “Shot in the Dark,” “Til the Right One Comes,” and “Carry Me Away” dedicate themselves to the general idea of finding love, and to the feelings of hope for a brighter future which can serve to mitigate the deeply internalized and generally shared fear of dying alone, which most people reckon with to one degree or another. “Wild Blue” can also fall into this category, despite maintaining a greater focus on the idea of getting through the hurt itself in order to move on from the past. The song’s final lines “I found myself when I lost you, and you’ll never know the unlikely beauty in letting you go,” like many of the songs on Sob Rock, bring the exploratory bulk of the song to a clear and satisfying resolution, progressing the narrative in a genuinely interesting way without having it feel forced.

The placement within the sequence of the album’s final track, “All I Want Is to Be With You,” poses more questions than it answers. Placed in the early or middle sections of the tracklist, “All I Want Is to Be With You” could be viewed simply as part of the process of moving on in the album’s loose narrative of rediscovering meaning in life following the yanking of the metaphorical rug from underneath a person’s feet. The narrator in the song appears to be throwing up his hands in flustered acceptance of the unbudging feelings for a person they know can no longer be a part of their lives. Consider the song’s first verse,

“I can fake it and pretend/ I don’t wanna see your face again/ And I can find me someone new/ But all I want is to be with you/”

The song’s narrative acts as an unanticipated twist on the idea of growth and redemption expressed throughout the nine preceding tracks. While certainly provocative, the idea feels, conceptually, like investing oneself in an engaging and unexpectedly brilliant film, only to learn in the final scene that the events depicted in the film were merely part of a dream sequence. The redemption and character development feel earned at this point in the record, and the thought of those elements crumbling in on themselves admittedly can evoke some feelings of disappointment. Though this is only one interpretation. Who – aside from the artist himself – is to say what true narrative idea, if any, was meant to be expressed through the sequencing here? For this listener’s money, however, “Wild Blue” would have served as a much more appropriate and effective closer, while “All I Want Is to Be With You” would have functioned nicely in its place in the middle of the album.

What John Mayer presents with Sob Rock is truly remarkable, and shows that an artist in middle-age territory can – when engaged – continue to create compelling, accessible art. The fact that this art was executed successfully in the pop format while managing to retain its integrity only makes it all the more admirable, as do the layers added by the throwback aesthetic and loose conceptual approach. Whether you are more keen to embrace John Mayer as a pop troubadour or as an ambassador of the blues tradition, one would be remiss to call into question the man’s remarkable facility for execution of the musical idiom.

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