John Mayer’s Empty 1980s Excess

Right off the highest, it must be stated: nice merch. Beautiful merch.

John Mayer’s “Sob Rock” period comes with an aesthetic each pristine and sublimely ridiculous: wealthy Florida retiree within the 1980s, Alessandro Mendini, the Sony Discman, proto-“American Psycho,” near-peak cocaine. Teal and lavender. Slender sans-serif fonts. On the album cowl, Mayer wields his guitar like a phallus.

These are detailed signifiers, an commercial for a well-known form of casually louche rock extra — not the rowdiness of hair steel or the maximalism of prog, however the slick unctuousness that heralded the arrival of the yuppie. They recommend notionally angsty rock to hearken to in your imported German convertible.

As retro costume selections go, it’s an apt one for Mayer, who within the final decade has largely been musically at sea because the blues-pop of his youthful years has drifted with no anchor within the Drake period. The conceit of “Sob Rock,” Mayer’s eighth studio album, affords a chance for, if not a recent context, at the least a context.

And but for all of the stylistic cosplay of the album’s visible presentation, little or no of this aesthetic is within the songs, that are largely eminently nice, often oh-he-really-pulled-it-off nostalgic and extra usually dour. “Sob Rock” typically crackles with the frisson of a performer cracking the code on a well-worn fashion, however extra usually shows simply how difficult it’s to construct a flashy home on a weak basis.

“Sob Rock” is Mayer’s eighth studio album.

Mayer has come this far by being a virtuosic guitar participant, a nice songwriter and a largely uninspiring singer. None of that modifications on “Sob Rock,” which teems with limp lyrics, blunt emotional broadsides that defy deconstruction. “It shouldn’t be easy/But it shouldn’t be hard/You shouldn’t be a stranger in your own backyard,” he declaims on “Shouldn’t Matter but It Does.” On “Shot in the Dark,” he laments, “I don’t know what I’m gonna do/I’ve loved seven other women and they all were you.” “Why You No Love Me” repeats the title phrase, the plea of a kid, advert nauseam, previous cute and cloying all the best way to irksome.

Throughout the album, Mayer’s singing is totally convictionless. His syllables are detached, blasé. On “Shouldn’t Matter but It Does,” he typically feels like he’s leaving lyrical place holders he by no means returns to.

Where “Sob Rock” comes alive, because it had been, is on the music outros, which nod to the kind of musicianship that has made Mayer a cognoscenti favourite and a seamless inclusion to Dead & Company, his main musical outlet of the final half decade. There’s a saccharine twinkle operating all through “New Light,” and the top of “I Guess I Just Feel Like” is thick with appealingly dusty guitar.

“Sob Rock” — produced by Mayer with Don Was, a stalwart of ’80s and ’90s grownup rock who’s labored with Bonnie Raitt, Bob Dylan and extra — is filled with throwback musical nuggets (“Last Train Home,” “Wild Blue”) designed to set off previous pleasure facilities. That extends to the behind-the scenes gamers, who embrace Greg Phillinganes, who performed with Michael Jackson, Anita Baker, Richard Marx and plenty of extra; the extremely regarded session drummer Lenny Castro; and the bassist Pino Palladino, recognized for work with D’Angelo and Elton John. (Palladino additionally performed on Don Henley’s 1989 solo pop breakthrough “The End of the Innocence,” a transparent touchstone right here.)

In locations, like “Carry Me Away,” the triumph of the association is potent sufficient to cloak the brittle lyrical bones it sits upon. But on the whole, Mayer’s songwriting is immune to even essentially the most thorough gussying up. And even at its most strong, “Sob Rock” is placid, by no means doing greater than winking.

But then, the album is merely a pretense for Mayer. In his current interview with Apple Music’s Zane Lowe, Mayer stated, “I’ve done this for long enough that the idea of just a single layer offering doesn’t excite me anymore.” Which is to say: the songs should not sufficient. Maybe they by no means had been.

When it involves all of the related ephemera of stardom, although, Mayer — a collector of uncommon watches, Japanese clothes and different sartorial obscurities — is taking as meticulous an strategy because the merchandising maven Travis Scott. The album cowl was designed by Jeremy Dean (who makes wildly artistic Grateful Dead bootlegs and, due to Mayer, official merch for Dead & Company), and the T-shirts name again to promoting for hi-fi stereo programs of the 1980s. Mayer additionally collaborated with the nü-hippies of Online Ceramics for limited-edition shirts. The fashion is corpo-progressive, so on-the-nose ahead-of-the-curve it verges on tasteless, then rounds the nook proper again to sophisticated.

In 2021, being a full-service model has grow to be totally integral to pop stardom, and this strategy to bodily product permits Mayer a strategy to take part in that ecosystem whereas making music that has nothing to do with it. All of which implies that at this level, a decade or so previous when he usually scored hit singles, having fun with John Mayer could haven’t all that a lot to do with having fun with John Mayer songs.

And even when Mayer’s selections are particular and a bit outré, they’re not audacious. The period he’s chosen to inhabit has limitations. Even of their day, these reference-point songs weren’t fairly serrate, or scabrous — they had been the globular center. Now, three-plus a long time on, they’re the stuff of innocuous background music, the kinds of songs that generate passive income for his or her publishing homeowners.

But possibly that is precisely the slipstream Mayer is hoping to soften into. I’m fairly sure I heard “Wild Blue” in a Staples yesterday. Couldn’t ensure, although.

John Mayer
“Sob Rock”
(Columbia)