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The Spirit of the ’80s Is Alive and Crying on John Mayer’s New Album

‘Sob Rock,’ the singer-songwriter’s eighth full-length, wraps its sadness in ’80s-style soft rock while also offering some of his best music in at least a decade

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

What we got here is a new John Mayer song called “Why You No Love Me.” Not a typo. The joke is that the song ain’t funny. The song is from a new John Mayer album called Sob Rock. Turns out the album ain’t funny, either. Sob Rock also includes my favorite John Mayer song in the past 12 years; Sob Rock also includes, to my mind, the two saddest songs he’s ever sung. What we’ve got here is an impressively rendered, baffling tonal conundrum. You’ve probably already seen the album cover, but I need you to look at it again.

For a not-funny album, this is a legitimately great gag: Come for the Reagan-core The Nice Price sticker, stay for the Apple-pandering price tag and subtle (?) hint of dopey geometric art. His gaze is smoldering so hard it takes you forever to fully absorb the haircut. Indeed, Mayer’s irony-proof eighth album—the jokes (Saab Rock? S.O.B. Rock?) write themselves but wither in the mere presence of that smolder—is an abjectly lovelorn ’80s-soft-rock goof. A guilty-conscience-ridden End of the Innocence. A turquoise-tinted illumination of Dire Straits. An ornately dug Tunnel of No Love Whatsoever. A tasty but desperately lonely Clapton riff wallowing at the uneasy nexus of “Wonderful Tonight,” “Tears in Heaven,” and (spiritually) “Cocaine.”

Let’s make clear immediately that your boy commits to the bit until it ceases to be a bit at all. “Yeah, it was ‘Pretend someone made a record in 1988 and shelved it and it was just found this year,’” is how Mayer recently explained the idea to the great fashion/rock newsletter Blackbird Spyplane. He talked up this halcyon era’s “dynamic innocence,” its “pump-your-fist-in-a-convertible” sense of wonder and promise.

But he also talked about how far the bit could go: “Yes, it’s funny to hear a chorused Jackson guitar going through the same amp they used back then, but I had to figure out this genetic tightrope walk, where if it has too much retro DNA, two things happen: I lose interest, and I don’t believe it,” Mayer continued. “So it was about moving the line back, and it turns out that—dialing back from 100 percent full symmetrical-neon-sunglasses ’80s—you really only need 8 percent to make people understand the vision. Anything past 8 percent and people say, ‘Got it, next.’”

And so on the other 92 percent of Sob Rock, John Mayer sounds legitimately isolated and rejected and remorseful and sad and resigned to permanent sadness. Which brings us back to “Why You No Love Me,” a quite lovely song too forlorn to bother with proper grammar.

“Why You No Love Me” sounds like the narrator of the Beach Boys’ “Kokomo” three hours and 10 tequila shots later, plus an 11th tequila shot thrown in his face by the lady he was attempting to seduce by singing “Kokomo.” Now it’s closing time. Nobody else in the bar. It’s a tiki bar, fine: rotting pineapple stench in the air, somebody pushing a broom already, some jackass put Taylor Swift on the jukebox as a prank, and here is John Mayer, international playboy, alone, head in his hands, elbows propped up on the bar, softly crooning his ass off as he always does and always will:

Why you no love me?
Why you no love me?
Why you no even care?
Why you no love me?
Why you no love me?
Why you no will be there?

Why you no will be there, sheesh. It is a small miracle that this chorus doesn’t sound incredibly stupid—a small miracle but precious little consolation. “Those words in that order, that’s about getting hurt so deep it hits you right in the kid, where you can’t even form sentences correctly,” Mayer explained in another interview included with a physical PR-stunt zine stapled and mailed to my house. “To me the saddest part of it is that it’s wrapped up in a soft-rock banger.”

That is also the saddest thing about Sob Rock’s other nine songs. Now would be a good time to point out that the third track on John Mayer’s first album, 2001’s multiplatinum smash Room for Squares, is called “My Stupid Mouth,” and begins by describing a promising dinner date his stupid mouth ruins. “I just want to be liked,” croons John Mayer, 23-year-old superstar rookie. “Just want to be funny / Looks like the jokes on me / So call me Captain Backfire.” The next song on Room for Squares is “Your Body Is a Wonderland,” and try as he might, Mayer ain’t shut up since.

Recently, I got hung up on John Mayer’s appearance on VH1 Storytellers in 2010, in which your boy explains the inspiration behind his Grammy-feted 2003 smash hit “Daughters,” a lovely and tender bit of father-daughter wedding dance fluff that Mayer proceeds, in this moment, to ruin. He explains that it’s about a failed romantic relationship, which failed specifically because of the young lady’s “daddy issues.” She couldn’t trust your boy John, see. Drove him nuts. “If I meet one more beautiful woman with daddy issues, I swear to god I’m just gonna go insane and beat the crap out of my daughters,” Mayer says, out loud, into a microphone, in a room with a lot of people and also cameras in it. “That’s probably how the vicious cycle started when I come to think about it. That’s how it all started. Wow. These songs can actually be very enlightening. And by enlightening I mean ‘ruining your career.’”

He is reacting here to the nervous laughter, the encroaching awkward silence. So then he just plays the song. “Daughters”! Who doesn’t love “Daughters”? Everyone cheers. Everyone is relieved. One of the best things about listening to John Mayer sing, from John Mayer’s perspective, is that it prevents John Mayer from talking.

As his superstar career rumbled along—in which further smash hits mesh seamlessly with truly disastrous interviews and one exquisitely caustic Taylor Swift diss track—Mayer maintained this upstairs-downstairs divide. His music—cycling expertly from mellow soul to mellow arena-rock to mellow blues to mellow folk—is chill and inoffensive, whereas his personal life is chaotic and quite offensive indeed, especially if you are an exasperated famous woman dating him. Sob Rock comes to us after a string of “moves to Montana once” glamping folk expeditions, none terrible, none terribly memorable. (The Search for Everything, from 2017, did have the song called “Emoji of a Wave.”) But Sob Rock is his most compelling sonic pivot in years, the guitar solos tasty and understated, the vintage synthesizers radiating an optimism that itself sounds frightfully dated but also sounds aspirational. It’s a good time, genuinely. You only feel silly for the first 20 minutes or so. Honest.

You can, in fact, sink so deep into Sob Rock’s precisely calibrated 8 percent approach to Morning in America nostalgia that you hardly notice Mayer’s lyrics don’t really change no matter what genre he’s mellowing out to at the moment. “You’re like 22 girls in one / And none of them know what they’re runnin’ from,” he lamented on 2013’s Paradise Valley, a Montana-core glampfire jam through and through. And now, here comes “Shot in the Dark,” which sounds like Tom Cruise and Paul Newman slow-dancing in a pool hall under Martin Scorsese’s watchful eye, and John’s still at it: “And I don’t know what I’m gonna do / I’ve loved seven other women and they all were you.” Best line in that one, though, is “I want you in the worst way / Is the gate code still your birthday?” He sings it like he just knows she changed it. I bet he gave her a good reason to change it.

Wow, John Mayer sounds depressed on Sob Rock. (So it’s not just a clever name!) The two saddest songs he’s ever written are acoustic-guitar-driven ballads that dial back the ’80s cosplay to 4 percent and crank the melancholy up to 11. The last verse of “Shouldn’t Matter but It Does” unfolds like so:

I shouldn’t be angry
I shouldn’t hold on
I shouldn’t leave messages in every little song
It could have been always
It could have been me
We could have been busy naming baby number three

But the closing statement of “I Guess I Just Feel Like” is even more agonized:

I guess I just feel like the joke’s gettin’ old
And the future is fading and the past is on hold
But I know that I’m open and I know that I’m free
And I’ll always let hope in, wherever I’ll be
And if I go blind, I’d still find my way
I guess I just felt like givin’ up today

He reaches for a classic John Mayer heartrending falsetto on blind there, which you just know will drive all the girls crazy when he’s out on Sob Rock Tour 2022, but it’s just the one elusive girl he wants, if it wasn’t for her daddy issues, or her seven-to-22 different personalities, or his stupid mouth. Is the joke getting old? Sob Rock might leave you cold overall, depending on your tolerance for vintage stunts and perma-bachelor self-pity, but “New Light” is a winner, ever-so-slightly more propulsive and arch and louche and vibrant. This is the tune with the super-dorky video he first unveiled in 2018, very eager for you to meme him until he became a real boy again.

“If you give me just one night / You’re gonna see me in a new light” is a killer chorus, if we’re honest, and the best foot forward for both Sob Rock and 2021 John Mayer as a whole. But a profound existential ache is lurking here too. “I’m the boy in your other phone,” this tune begins, after all. “Lighting up inside your drawer at home, all alone / Pushing 40 in the friend zone / We talk and then you walk away, every day.” It’s enough to make you order a 12th shot of tequila. Here’s to Captain Backfire, and how far your boy’s come, and also how far he hasn’t.