John Mayer Moves Forward by Going Back

John Mayer performs during the 2015 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony in Cleveland, Ohio, April 18, 2015. (Aaron Josefczyk/Reuters)
On his latest album, Sob Rock, the virtuosic singer-songwriter-guitarist finds fresh inspiration in the music of the 1980s.

I’ve always liked John Mayer — yes, even the jejune, college-tinged early John Mayer whom everyone now loves to hate. He writes memorable songs, he has a nice and open voice, and, because I’m predominantly seduced by melody, I’ve never been particularly irritated by the flippancy of some of his lyrics.

Still, I will admit to having wondered lately where Mayer could possibly go next. Since 2009’s Battle Studies, his output has been a touch schizophrenic. On Born and Raised (2012) and Paradise Valley (2013), he stripped his sound down, blending a Crosby, Stills, and Nash–esque acoustic-folk affect with the noodlings of J.J. Cale. 2017’s The Search for Everything sounds as if it started life as a raw John Mayer Trio effort before being handed over to Phil Spector. At some point, in around 2006, Mayer became a truly magnificent guitarist, but, outside of a few of his live shows, he has never quite managed to build the right showcase for his prodigious ability. My guess, such as it was, was that he would treat his latest album as a chance to change that.

Instead, he went back to 1986.

Superficially, Mayer’s eighth release, Sob Rock, is a throwback, sonically and aesthetically grounded in the mid-to-late Reagan era. The opening track, “Last Train Home,” is built atop a bed of warm digital synths and deliberately artefacted drums that sound as if they were recorded in the same studio as Toto’s Africa. The arpeggios of “Why You No Love Me” channel Air Supply in their All Out of Love phase; the bass on “Wild Blue” is straight Huey Lewis and the News; the falsetto musings that punctuate “I Guess I just Feel Like” echo U2’s “Running to Stand Still”; and, on the tight “New Light,” Mayer interrupts a “Gypsy”-era Fleetwood Mac vibe by dropping into a heavily compressed ersatz-funk break of which the B-52s would have been proud. Mayer knows his music history — and it shows.

Still, even as he painstakingly layered era-appropriate instruments, Mayer was careful to avoid the sterility of so many of the 1980s recordings that inspired him. There’s a lot of the era’s clinical, solid-state sound here, yes, but it has been mercifully offset by buckets full of ear-pleasing vacuum tubes and a more contemporary approach to mastering. The result is a nostalgia piece that will sound good in your Tesla.

Throwback albums rarely work — at least, they rarely work beyond their lead singles — because most are the result of the artist’s having had the idea of doing a throwback album rather than of the artist’s having written and arranged a good bunch of songs that could stand to be performed and recorded in one of a whole range of ways. Sob Rock breaks this trend because, unlike the work of, say, LaRoux, its 1980s vibe isn’t the message so much as a filter placed upon the melody-laden record that Mayer was going to make anyway. As a one-time producer myself, I have always been keen to distinguish between a “track” and a “song”: A track, in my classification, is a recording in which there is so little room between the song and the production that an attempt to recreate it at a party on an old acoustic guitar would fall flat. A song, by contrast, is a piece of work that could be recorded by anyone, in any style, and still retain its integrity. One of the reasons that Mayer gets away with his Sob Rock foray is that, as usual, he wrote songs for the project instead of assembling tracks. Go play the lush “I Guess I Just Feel Like” on an old piano, and you’ll see what I mean.

The other reason it works, of course, is that Mayer is one hell of a musician and he has an exquisite ear. Playing dry, his guitar sound on Sob Rock borrows from Love Over Gold–era Mark Knopfler, with a little James Calvin Wilsey thrown in for good measure. Overdriven, he takes the tight, fizzing, loose-electrical-cable sound from Eric Clapton’s Journeyman (at times, the timbre is almost indistinguishable from Clapton’s on “No Alibis”) or Greg Allman’s Just Before the Bullets Fly. (Here’s some sacrilege: At this stage, Mayer may well be a more interesting guitarist than either Clapton or Allman.) And yet there is a paradox at heart of the endeavor, in that, while Mayer’s guitar playing undoubtedly gives the record its sheen, its modesty is perhaps the least 1980s thing about the whole project: There are no big-and-dramatic solos on Sob Rock, even in the places where they might credibly have fit.

John Mayer being John Mayer, it is hard to tell whether this is the result of his peculiar brand of arrogant self-consciousness, or whether it’s a purely ego-driven “screw you” to the less talented. But either way, one of the most remarkable things about Sob Rock is that Mayer never really shows off his prodigious ability, preferring to leave his most inspired work buried in the background or hidden right at the end of each song. Devilishly, the most inspired playing on the whole record comes in its last 45 seconds, and the most inspired playing within those 45 seconds comes in the last 15 — at which point the track has faded to about a third of its volume, and left those of us still hoping for Mayer to make an unashamed guitar-virtuoso album to lament that it’ll be a few more years coming yet.


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