It’s hard to feel bad for John Mayer. In the 20 years since his debut album Room for Squares turned the Berklee dropout into a pop-rock heartthrob, Mayer has done practically everything any rock star would want to do: make hit records, wow millions at concerts, play with legends of the genre, collaborate with hitmakers outside the genre, date famous women and most famously in his case, be smug about it. For all the talk of rock music being in dire straits, Mayer may be the last true example of the classic “rock star” made in the last two decades. Even as popular music tastes have shifted far away from “Your Body is a Wonderland,” Mayer has lived comfortably doing his version of bluesy soft-rock at a consistent rate with little experimentation or pandering to modern trends. Though people won’t admit to listening to John Mayer, it’s hard not to think people wouldn’t want to be John Mayer for an hour or two. But does John Mayer want to be John Mayer anymore? Is he looking at himself in the mirror laughing in self-awareness of being alone and sad in his 40s? Or is he just alone and sad in his 40s?
It’s actually hard to tell from his eighth album, Sob Rock. On the one hand, the album title and cover art makes it look like Mayer is having a goof on his own mid-life crisis: the 80s-pastel color scheme, the Miami Vice-esque font and even the price stickers make it seem like Mayer is riffing on the Reagan-era records from Eric Clapton or Steve Winwood. The music also has hints of soft-rock cheese right from the get-go. “Last Train Home” has the same Casio organ and island guitar-riff of Toto’s “Africa,” while “Why You No Love Me” and “I Guess I Just Feel Like” have the clean acoustic production of The Eagles post-reunion. “Shot in the Dark” has the light chugging riff and build-up of Rick Springfield’s “Jessie’s Girl” but not nearly a big enough breakdown in the chorus, while “Til the Right One Comes” sounds like James Taylor covering “This Must Be the Place.” The production from Don Was, who modernized the sound of boomer acts including The Rolling Stones and Jackson Browne in their later years, is smooth and pristine with Mayer and his backing band staying tight on every song. And yes, Mayer himself busts out a neat solo every now and then. If anything, Sob Rock achieves its sonic goals too well and is so blatantly dated that it doesn’t have any charm. Mayer comes off not as a tribute to his heroes but more just him being a copycat.
So the music is (or is trying to be) a joke, but the lyrics certainly don’t sound like it. On his last album The Search For Everything, Mayer was nursing his wounds from a breakup with Katy Perry but promising a personal growth from this painful experience. According to Sob Rock, Mayer’s life-affirming lesson he learned in the four years since is…maybe she’ll come back? Yeah, Mayer is stuck wallowing in self-pity and, as said in the breezy “New Light,” “pushing 40 in the friend zone.” Like his Dead & Co. bandmates, he wants to keep on truckin’ to the next phase of his life but there’s a bitterness to that behavior. “Til the Right One Comes” has Mayer searching for a new lady out of spite (“You knock me down and you call me crazy/You say I’m never gonna love someone/Give it time now and you might find maybe/I’ll prove you wrong when the right one comes”) while “New Light” is Mayer trying to croon through his own desperation (“Yeah, if you give me just one night/You’re gonna see me in a new light”). But 80% of the album is Mayer swimming in loneliness of his lost love, whether it’s metaphorical on “Wild Blue” (“Never seen the sun before/Laying on the ocean floor/Walking through the wilderness/And living off the loneliness”) or literal on “I Guess I Just Feel Like” (“I guess I just feel like good things are gone/And the weight of my worries is too much to take on”). It might be respectable that someone known for his ego and womanizing is just laying his sorrow out in a blatant way, but the music isn’t interesting enough to support the basic lyrics or even lazier titles like “Why You No Love Me” or “I Guess I Just Feel Like.”
So what do we do with Sob Rock? Do we chuckle at how purposely-dated it sounds and that the monkey’s paw Mayer wished upon curled to slowly turn him into the same corny elder that the likes of Clapton, Winwood and others became? Do we roll our eyes at the lyrics on par with a drunk text from a romantic lead in the first act of a romantic comedy? Or do we get worried that Mayer’s influences are now trapping and regressing his talent for songwriting and performing? It’s ok to feel sad sometimes, as long as you learn something from those experiences. All Mayer is doing with Sob Rock is learning how to get left on read.