Review: John Mayer revisits soft rock with squishy results

  • "Sob Rock," the latest release by John Mayer.

    "Sob Rock," the latest release by John Mayer. Courtesy of Columbia Records

 
 
Posted7/17/2021 5:00 AM

"Sob Rock," John Mayer (Columbia Records)

You can thank the pandemic for John Mayer's eighth studio album. He has said he wrote the songs to wrap listeners in the sonic comforter of soft rock. If you don't like soft rock, you can blame the pandemic for one more thing.

 

Mayer kicks off the 10-track "Sob Rock" with a gem: "Last Train Home," a throwback guitar-and-synth rocker with Maren Morris on background vocals that sounds like it could have been on Eric Clapton's 1986 album "August." (Extra credit for the great line "I'm not a fallen angel/I just fell behind.")

Other bright spots include "New Light," which finds Mayer suffering unrequited love, or, as he says "pushing 40 in the friend zone." It has a funky vibe and a Santana-ish solo. And his "Wild Blue" has a cool Dire Straits feel.

If you're getting a melancholy and retro feel here, you're not wrong. Unrushed, comfortably in the singer-songwriter pocket -- if slightly beige -- is the tone here, under the helm of iconic producer Don Was.

It straddles the line between '80s parody and homage, which the cover also does, reaching for a "Miami Vice" and peak Richard Marx vibe. The guitar work is Mayer at his best, throwing out gorgeous understated fireworks, but too many of their vehicles are unimpressive. "Sob Rock" often sounds like warmed-over yacht rock.

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For every "Guess I Just Feel Like" -- with shimmering, B.B. King-inspired blues axe work -- there's the lazy "Why You No Love Me," which sounds like a lounge act gone awry. "Carry Me Away" is as substantial as a summer breeze, and "All I Want Is To Be With You" reeks of faux moody depth, a U2 song without conviction.

Fans of Mayer looking for clues into his private life will find little specific, apart from the intriguing line in "Shot in the Dark": "I've loved seven other women and they all were you." And he has a great retort for why he hasn't settled down yet in "Til the Right One Comes": "I know people broke down and defeated/Lost what they needed in some miserable war/ So forgive me if I might look around for a minute."

A fine effort, then, to try to resurrect the much-maligned genre of '80s soft rock. But it often feels like Mayer just fell behind.

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