Rating – 2/5
John Mayer is an extremely polarising figure in the musical world, so let me caveat this review by saying that I’m unashamedly a huge fan of the majority of his work. He’s a fantastic songwriter with a lot in the bag when it comes to guitar heroics and up to this point, the two have married extremely well together (in my opinion).
John has clearly gone all-in on a specific theme for this record, a cursory glance at the marketing and album art sets the tone for an 80s Clapton, Miami Vice-inspired trip down memory lane. The opening single ‘Last Train Home’ is ‘Africa’ reimagined, and ‘Wild Blue’ hooks you in with a bouncy Fleetwood Mac-Esque bassline; there’s no pretense behind the choices on the record, it’s Mayer’s homage to the music of his youth and we can either like it or lump it.
Having said that ‘Sob Rock’ isn’t short on fantastic playing and tasty guitar licks, but the 80s themed songwriting seems lackluster, almost pedestrian by comparison to peak Mayer composition. Doing an 80s album is fine, but the spark of what made his songwriting great in the past has been lost under a blanket of shimmering reverb and corny synth patterns. Even the title of the record itself seems tongue-in-cheek, a half-serious attempt that we can point to and say oh if you don’t like the record stop taking it so seriously, which seems a bit of a cop-out before it’s even begun.
‘Why You No Love Me’ is the nadir of the record only four songs in, it begins with a really interesting, haunting theme but quickly descends into a strange cheesy chorus with a repeating whiny cry of ‘Why you no love me?’. I felt like I was watching the title credits to a cheesy Korean drama; utterly bizarre, but at least every track after this does have at least some merit to it.
If the album feels like a few singles thrown together with a handful of other songs, then that’s probably because it is. John reaches as far back as 2018 to include ‘New Light’ on the album, along with a handful of other singles that have been released in the interim. I enjoyed ‘New Light’ when it came out, but to have it shoehorned into this record seems a little lazy, but more importantly it kind of takes away from the record having any other overarching cohesiveness.
As you’d expect the production and gloss on the record are second to none and Mayer’s playing clearly is getting more refined and even better as he ages. To say that he serves the songs is an understatement; he has an almost chameleon-like ability to render musical ideas and themes extremely distinctively. You need only look at him with Dead & Co. to appreciate his flexibility and musical understanding.
To its credit, the final track is the strongest on the album, ‘All I Want is to Be with You is an example of what makes Mayer’s songwriting so compelling; stripped back yet full of pathos. The track builds really nicely with low-crooning vocals, a simple but effective melody that is built on thematically as the track progresses, and finally a wild crescendo of a guitar solo that finishes both the song and the album strongly.
We’re always harping on about how great music was ‘back in the day, so why don’t artists just keep making the same albums again and again? Well, this is kind of a prime example of why you don’t, because it sort of cheapens the whole thing and renders the songs redundant; pale imitations of a time that has passed. Has John made an album that excites and interests him? Yeah probably, it’s like a love letter to the past but from a listening perspective, I would argue there’s no point to nostalgia if you just revisit it and update it every 10 years.
Review by Theo Wildgoose