‘A Fairly Easy Pastiche to Stomach’: A Review of John Mayer’s Sob Rock

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More "soft" than "Sob", John Mayer's latest album is an undemanding and easy 38 minutes -- but not much more.

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Hot on (and late to) eighties revival, John Mayer is back with his eighth LP, a whole four years since his last.

Given the wilderness years in between — where singles like ‘New Light’ and ‘I Guess I Just Feel Like’ trickled in on an almost annual basis — this record stands as a culmination of John’s patchy output over the last three years. I had some cynicism; COVID dissociation makes this release feel very overdue, and gaudy nostalgia parodies are starting to get very old. But how does Sob Rock go over?

Despite the record’s (catchy) title, Mayer is not penning heart-wrenchers here. ‘Shouldn’t Matter but It Does’ is the closest John comes to an authentic or honest number, as lyrically cliched choruses undersell later cuts (‘Shot In The Dark’, ‘All I Want Is To Be With You’); it’s nothing we haven’t heard before. I found this disappointing, as Mayer usually has an ability to iterate well-trodden ideas in interesting, sometimes novel, ways (‘Stop This Train’, ‘Never On The Day You Leave’). Sob Rock has neither the lyrical neatness nor sincerity of many of Mayer’s earlier full-lengths. This is, of course, except for bizarre centerpiece ‘Why You No Love Me’, whose hook is either hugely misguided or pokes fun at itself. Either way, it is amusing.

No, this record’s crutch is sonic. I won’t be the first nor last to joke that “Soft Rock” would have been a more appropriate title, as the main appeal of the album comes from its slick seventies/eighties inspirations. From the Toto pastiche ‘Last Train Home’ (admittedly a bit much), to Doobie Brothers-gone-Steely Dan ‘Wild Blue’, to nearly cheese-room ballad ‘Shot In The Dark’, John is very clear about its intentions. It helps that the mixes are very smooth (the most they’ve been in a while from a Mayer album) and it rarely feels as though the album is taking the piss or ripping anyone off wholesale. Though the cover and music videos wobble the scale between tasteful and overdone, Sob Rock is — thank goodness — a fairly easy pastiche to stomach.

The songwriting takes a backseat as a result of the aesthetic focus. Only one song here has a great bridge and it’s only the odd track that features a memorable performance. This approach crumbles a bit in the record’s second half, where the overly simple whimsy of ‘Carry Me Away’ and country chord progression of ‘Til The Right One Comes’ begin to spread cracks in the initial pleasantness of the album. Sob Rock might have been tighter at half an hour, with fewer tracks that break four minutes. It seems reductive to complain that it wasn’t low-impact enough, but this LP could have used some fat-trimming.

This being said, there aren’t overwhelming grounds for disappointment. We are brought what is billed; a neat 10 tracks. It’s a lovely record to spin outside in the sun (John clearly knows this considering its mid-July release) so it’s tough to be frustrated, even if it barely dents the best of his catalogue.

Sob Rock is out now via Columbia Records. Watch the video for ‘Shot in the Dark’ below:

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