John Mayer Tries Something New, Kinda, on 'Sob Rock'
Published Jul 19, 2021Throughout his 20-plus years in the music industry, John Mayer has managed to explore a diverse array of sounds to varying degrees of success, never committing to a single style or putting the same album out twice. It's an admirable feat, but it's always come with a catch — no matter which style or genre Mayer is emulating, he seldom leaves his comfort zone. His penchant for pairing charming, relatable, pop-leaning songwriting with highly skilled but mostly subdued guitar work is present in every release and is slowly becoming more of a crutch than a solid foundation for his music.
That's not to say that his explorations of different genres don't work, but they work much better when the albums have a specific vision or direction. His magnum opus, 2006's Continuum, saw him embracing his blues, jazz and soul influences, and it resulted in his best work to date. With 2012's Born and Raised, Mayer delved deeply into Americana, trying his hand at the traditions of alt-country and folk-rock and delivering an underrated and incredibly enjoyable effort.
Sob Rock's artwork makes it immediately apparent what's in store once you press play — a tongue-in-cheek project that harkens back to the sounds and styles of the '80s, capturing the decade's musical aesthetic but delivering it in a somewhat jocular manner. For the most part, the album does just that, housing songs that fit right into any dad rock station's daily rotation without being too derivative or too humorous to be taken seriously. It's a perfectly pleasant and easygoing listening experience — so much so that it eventually becomes a detriment to the album.
Mayer has once again made himself at home in a genre that he's not accustomed to, but has done so by burrowing himself into a bed a familiarity at the heart of it. Sure, he's executing the '80s soft rock aesthetic to the high degree that you would expect of a musician of his calibre, but he never exceeds that expectation, comfortably playing it safe for the majority of the LP. It's disappointing because, for all of this album's enjoyability, it never has that "wow" moment or exceptional song, barring the hilariously bad "Why You No Love Me," which stands out for all of the wrong reasons.
Despite its shortcomings, Sob Rock still manages to remain breezy for the entirety of its short runtime. There's an undeniable warmth to the way Mayer's voice sails across a sea of plucky guitar strings on the Dire Straits-influenced "Wild Blue," which features some of the best guitar work on the album. Closer "All I Want Is to Be With You" finds Mayer playing himself out in dramatic fashion with an anthemic, bluesy guitar solo.
Moments like these prove that, despite the downside that comes with Mayer treading those familiar waters, Sob Rock is probably his best since Born and Raised. With a cohesive, '80s-inspired soundscape and some earnest, heartfelt songwriting, Mayer has created an album that is an almost consistently enjoyable listen. It may not live up to the efforts of its influences, but Sob Rock is perfect for a carefree summertime drive along the coast. (Columbia)