Several years ago, I decided to conduct a thought experiment with John Mayer: I imagined him having the exact same career, except now it started in the year 1980 rather than the year 2000. This was actually pretty easy to imagine, given that a musician of his ilk — a soft-rock guitarist with pronounced singer-songwriter musical leanings — was much more common in the yacht-rock era than today. If Mayer had that career arc, would I feel differently about his music?
At the time of this experiment, I was indifferent to Mayer as an artist, and had negative feelings about him as a person. Musically, I dismissed him as a lightweight, a precursor to every bland pop-folk superstar of the past two decades, from Ed Sheeran to Shawn Mendes. As an interview subject, he seemed smug or even arrogant. (Consider that Mayer, in that infamous 2010 Playboy profile doomed to re-appear in nearly everything subsequently written about him, brazenly used the n-word, an offense that certainly would’ve permanently derailed his career had it occurred even five years later.)
But I had reason to suspect that I had judged him unfairly. People I admired seemed to admire John Mayer. Frank Ocean recorded with John Mayer. Dave Chappelle toured with John Mayer. Bob Weir asked John Mayer to join his band. So I did my thought experiment. Maybe then, I could appreciate the guy.
If you know anything about music history, it’s clear that artists who are loaded down with inconvenient contemporary baggage — and John Mayer definitely had a deluxe luggage set of inconvenient baggage — suddenly appear liberated once they escape their era. With Mayer, I found that putting him in the same mental context as artists such as Phil Collins, Dire Straits, and Bruce Hornsby — all of whom were once wrongly maligned as cheesy relics, and are now rightly acknowledged as consummate pop-rock craftsmen — transformed how I thought about his music. I found that I could get beyond his pretty-boy smirkiness and the cultural baggage of songs like “Your Body Is A Wonderland” and “Daughters” and appreciate him as a songwriter and guitar player. Turns out that he slots with some of my all-time favorite smooth rockers from the 1970s and ’80s with extreme comfort. It was what finally made me a John Mayer fan.
I bring this up because, incredibly, John Mayer appears to have conducted this exact same thought experiment in regard to John Mayer. For his eighth studio album out today, Sob Rock, Mayer has said that it was a goal to “pretend someone made a record in 1988 and shelved it and it was just found this year.” He officially introduced this musical costume with the lead single “Last Train Home,” a loving homage to the sort of beer-commercial synth-rock that 40-something-year-old boomers like Steve Winwood and Eric Clapton turned out regularly during the Reagan/Bush years. For maximum verisimilitude, he enlisted ringers such as Lenny Castro of Toto and prolific studio musician Greg Phillinganes (who most notably contributed to Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall, Thriller, and Bad) to silky up the grooves. And then there’s Sob Rock‘s delectable album cover, which is so fully realized as an encapsulation of an ’80s corporate rock aesthetic that even the constituency least inclined to give Mayer a chance — nerdy vinyl collectors — have to grudgingly acknowledge its sly observational genius.
Mayer has gone as far as to liken the snarkily titled Sob Rock to “shitposting.” But the reason the album works as well as it does is that it’s not actually all that far removed sonically from Mayer’s best work. Albums like 2006’s Continuum and 2009’s Battle Studies are also indebted to the least fashionable strains of MOR blues-accented rock. What’s different now is that Mayer is about a decade removed from his peak as a hit-making pop star. His Sob Rock guise allows him to return to his former style, only this time with quote marks. He’s no longer the radio-dominating stud at the center of culture; he’s pursuing a different sort of post-modern cool that stems from being an aging, self-effacing rogue. To paraphrase “Fast Eddie” Felson (Paul Newman) from the Clapton-soundtracked 1986 film The Color Of Money: He’s acting like himself, but on purpose.
Playing the “self-aware washed” card has been a long game for Mayer. One of the highlights of Sob Rock is “New Light,” a witty slice of low-key Box Scaggs-style funk originally released as a single back in 2018, in which Mayer sings about “pushing 40 in the friend zone.” (Mayer is now 43.) Entering middle age has been transformational for Mayer, as it is for everyone. Ever since 2017’s underrated The Search For Everything, he hasn’t shown much urgency about putting out new music. In interviews, he’s hinted that the existence of Sob Rock was precipitated by the pandemic, when he was grounded from touring and suddenly had little to do.
Since 2015, a significant part of Mayer’s touring life has been filled by Dead & Company, one of the world’s most successful live bands. While Sob Rock has little in common musically with the Grateful Dead — weirdly, the two LPs he put out right before joining Dead & Company, 2012’s Born & Raised and 2013’s Paradise Valley, most resemble his current band — it does seem like Mayer has adopted the Dead’s time-honored aversion to modern pop trends. For decades, the Grateful Dead have endured by sounding unwaveringly like themselves. The less they try to sound trendy, the more successful they are. Once you get past the superficial “shitposting” nostalgic trappings, that seems to be the animating idea behind Sob Rock.
I’m just one month older than Mayer, and I’ve similarly accepted that being comfortable in your own skin is the only way to survive as a semi-lame middle-aged man. The alternative for Mayer would have been to partner up with young turks in a bid for relevancy — “New Light” feat. Olivia Rodrigo! — which would have likely backfired. So instead he’s leaning into his own passé style with equal parts irony and earnestness. Yes, songs like the frisky beach party shuffle “Wild Blue” and the remorseful cad ballad “Guess I Just Feel Like” evoke an era of Michelob ads and Two-For-Tuesday nights on WROK The Eagle. But those songs also sound a whole lot like Mayer’s own “classic” period.
Actually, let’s remove those quote marks from classic. As Sob Rock demonstrates, Mayer remains an eternally tasteful musician with a natural feel for melody and songcraft, and those qualities make his catalogue much more consistent than he’s given credit for. Well, perhaps the sappy likes of “Why You No Love Me” isn’t worthy of the “tasteful” tag. And the album-closing “All I Want Is To Be With You” — a shameless rip-off of U2’s “All I Want Is You” from 1988’s Rattle & Hum — can only be described as derivative. But overall, Sob Rock doesn’t feel like a costume. It sounds like John Mayer coming back into himself.
Sob Rock is out now via Columbia Records. Get it here.