John Mayer’s Empty 1980s Excess
And yet, despite all the stylistic cosplay of the album’s visual presentation, very little of that aesthetic is found in the songs, which are mostly eminently thin, sometimes oh-he-really-pulled nostalgic and more often austere. “Sob Rock” at times crackles with the thrill of a performer cracking the code of a well-worn style, but more often than not shows how hard it is to build a flashy house on weak foundations.
Mayer came this far as a virtuoso guitarist, excellent songwriter, and largely uninteresting singer. None of that changes on “Sob Rock,” which is chock full of soft lyrics, blunt emotional streaks 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 exclaims on “Shouldn’t Matter but It Does”. On “Shot in the Dark,” he laments, “I don’t know what I’m going to do / I liked seven other women and they were all you.” “Why don’t you love me” repeats the title phrase, a child’s plea, ad nauseam, cute and sickening past to boring.
Throughout the album, Mayer’s vocals are completely half-hearted. Its syllables are indifferent, jaded. On “Shouldn’t Matter but It Does”, he sometimes has the impression that he leaves spaces reserved for the lyrics to which he never returns.
Where “Sob Rock” comes to life, so to speak, is on the song’s outros, which nod to the kind of musicality that made Mayer a favorite of connoisseurs and a seamless inclusion in Dead & Company, its main musical outlet for the past half-decade. There is a saccharin glitter throughout “New Light” and the end of “I Guess I Just Feel Like” is thick with an attractive, dusty guitar.
“Sob Rock” – produced by Mayer with Don Was, a mainstay of adult rock from the 80s and 90s who worked with Bonnie Raitt, Bob Dylan and more – is chock full of returning musical nuggets (“Last Train Home”, “Wild Blue “) designed to trigger old pleasure centers. This extends to players behind the scenes, including Greg Phillinganes, who has played with Michael Jackson, Anita Baker, Richard Marx and many others; popular session drummer Lenny Castro; and bassist Pino Palladino, known for his work with D’Angelo and Elton John. (Palladino also performed on Don Henley’s 1989 solo pop breakthrough “The End of the Innocence,” a clear touchstone here.)
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