In the late 2000s, John Mayer underwent a “thinking man’s fiasco,” which climaxed in 2010 with a pair of high-profile, highly problematic magazine interviews that turned the spotlight away from his songwriting and onto his controversial, gossip-fueling personal life. He moved away from the public eye while he recuperated from a career-threatening vocal cord condition, moved to Montana and worked on the album Born and Raised, a stark departure from his previous work — it seemed to mark a transition into a more mature, self-aware period of the artist’s life.
Unfortunately, Mayer’s latest album, Sob Rock, indicates that the growth might have stopped there. Mayer is a brilliant guitarist and a (mostly) talented songwriter, but his abilities have become paralyzed by his seeming inability to break free of the chrysalis he spun for himself more than 10 years ago. Sob Rock is not a bad album; it’s an unremarkable one — the few places where Mayer does try and succeed at something new are overshadowed by the rest of the record’s stale, formulaic songs.
Sob Rock gets off to a promising start with “Last Train Home,” an ’80s-inspired track where Mayer appears to confront his 20-plus years of bad romantic luck, admitting that he’s getting too old to waste his time on relationships that won’t make it to the end of the line. The upbeat instrumentals recall the synth organ line on Van Halen’s “Jump,” but surprisingly, they don’t feel cheesy — Mayer takes the chord progression to a moodier place in the chorus, and kinetic electric guitar accents keep the song moving forward. The lyrics match the contrast of the music, offering a hopeful message alongside Mayer’s refreshing concession that having a penchant for heartbreak doesn’t make him a hero, it just means he needs to focus harder on getting it right next time.
But the next song on the album, “It Shouldn’t Matter but it Does,” stops the momentum, opting instead for yet another sluggish acoustic number about one of the many ones who got away. The dissonance between these first two tracks illustrates the central problem with Sob Rock: It can’t make up its mind. Is it an honest, optimistic new outlook on life, or is it yet another exercise in Mayer wondering what went wrong in a relationship that ended decades ago? It’s frustrating to listen to Mayer start off so strong, only to regress to the mean with a song he’s already written half a dozen times.
There are a few other noteworthy tracks on the album. “New Light” covers familiar thematic ground, but it’s a dazzling summer listen. The hook is unrelenting; Mayer’s soft vocals blanket over lo-fi keyboard chimes and guitar arpeggios for a hazy, yet electrifying effect. The unassuming “I Guess I Just Feel Like,” a confession disguised as a cliche acoustic ballad, is also a winner with its haunting lyrics and gently gritty guitar solos.
But the inclusion of these three singles is questionable considering some predate the album by more than a year (and more than three years in the case of “New Light”). They might save Sob Rock from being a complete misfire, but if you’re already familiar with them, the full album has little to offer. The new tracks, including “Til the Right One Comes” and “Shot in the Dark,” barely merit a mention, and certainly not a positive one. They all follow the same formula: a sultry groove garnished with forgettable lyrics about being unlucky in love, broken up with a searing guitar solo and finished with a fadeout. You might tap your foot while you listen to these songs, but you won’t remember them when the album ends.
Mayer perfected his signature sound a long time ago, and it works for him. But if it wasn’t already clear, Sob Rock shows that his signature stories aren’t cutting it anymore. The lyric “Pushing 40 in the friend zone” might be a cheeky bit of self-deprecation, but read earnestly, it encapsulates how tired his go-to themes are becoming. If it’s another four years before his next album arrives, Mayer will be pushing 50 — hopefully by that time he will have found a way to escape this directionless creative rut.
Matthew DuMont is the arts & entertainment editor. Contact him at [email protected].