John Mayer: Sob Rock album review
Let’s say you play your cards right and end up like John Mayer. Two decades later, you have amassed a solid streak of successes and a community of dedicated fans who will buy tickets anytime during your visit. You have luggage; who doesn’t? Some notable exes have painted overwhelming portraits of you in a little songlist, and you’ve said a few indefensible things to the press that follow you like hellhounds everywhere you go. At the same time, you have a gig worthy of being a touring guitarist for a classic rock institution, the kind of role you can gracefully grow old in, a paid job without ever having to come back to the limelight. Where are you going next?
“I’m somewhere between a pop artist and a jam group, maybe closer to the pop artist,” Mayer said recently. Assumed, and this particular niche propelled guitar virtuoso from Billboard charts and magazine covers straight into the Neil Young-buy-property-in-a-business-model-train phase of his career. (For Mayer, now 43, it’s all about luxury watches.) Yes he has a new record, but even that seems like a hobby, something to pass the time. The first single arrived in the spring of 2018, because why not? The suave and unmistakable “New Light” seems no less relevant today than it did then, and its inclusion proves that Mayer can work at his own pace – trends, release cycles and trends. global pandemics are to hell.
None of this suggests that sob, rock, his eighth studio album, is thoughtless. In fact, his vision is so complete and confident that he pretty much writes his own review. (Judging by the title, trash can stickers on the cover, and fake quotes on the merchandise, the tone is not that enthusiastic.) To make this music, Mayer gave himself a guest. Instead of an artist who dominated VH1 and fraternity houses in the early 2000s, and if he had emerged in the era of classic rock and found himself, decades later, as a late musician career trying to update its sound? “Pretend someone made a record in 1988 and put it aside”, Explain, “and it was just found this year.” It’s an intriguing concept until you realize that, even in his fantasies, John Mayer makes music doomed to be lost in time, undermined, and out of its element.
Before going any further, I will note that the 1980s stapled Mayer’s references to sob, rock manifestly, almost shockingly accurately, represents a moment in popular music that I am very fond of. It was a time when new technologies allowed career artists to embellish their music with soft, luxurious textures, better suited to the digital precision of CDs than to the analog crunch of vinyl. Blockbusters like Dire Straits Brothers in arms, that of Steve Winwood Back in the high life, and Don Henley’s The end of innocence– all the satisfied statements of well-established rock acts from the mid to late eighties – come to mind. There is a low-key triumph hearing someone like Mayer use his substantial resources to recreate that sound, bringing in first-hand witnesses like producer Don Was, bassist Pino Palladino and keyboardist Greg Phillinganes. If you’re going to enter, go all the way.
Nonetheless, it is a crowded area. Over the past decade, independent lifers like War on Drugs, Destroyer, Bon Iver, M83, Jenny Lewis, Cass McCombs, The Killers and Tame Impala have all drawn artistically from the same period; upstarts like Westerman and Bullion have offered their own underground take on this; Taylor Swift herself studied the era for a next-level pop breakthrough, going so far as to name an album after a specific year; Weezer landed his biggest hit in ages with a cover of “Africa” by Toto. Against this backdrop, once the novelty of his production wears off – the smooth stage synths and guitar solos, auxiliary percussion and mid-tempo cruising to the beat of the yachts –sob rock turns out to be just another John Mayer album, one to be judged on its own terms.
This is the part of the review where I should dissect the writing, calling attention to the ways Mayer misses the mark. But does anyone need me to explain why it’s uncomfortable, maybe even offensive, to hear a grown man from Connecticut sing a refrain of “Why you no love me?” Why don’t you even care? In a song called “Why You No Love Me”? Do you want me to clarify how, despite the Joshua tree the severity of the last “All I Want Is to Be With You”, the melody strangely resembles “I Want It That Way”? Do you need a music critic to annotate the gaping hole in the heart of the quasi-confessional strummer “I Guess I Just Feel Like”, whose deep melancholy seems as vague as its title?
These are obvious flaws – all reasons why, unlike the records that inspired it, you probably won’t hear artists decades from now imagining their own. sobs rocks. But surprisingly – just like the music that inspired him –sob rock the whole is immediate and enveloping, peaceful and sparkling, like the ocean seen from an airplane window. The album of 10 songs and 40 minutes is fluid and airy; its flaws are forgivable (except for “Why You No Love Me”) and its strengths are understated and fun. Hear these elegant twists from the chorus to the center riff of “Wild Blue”. Tune in to the slow build of “Shot in the Dark”, with a wonderful wordless accompaniment by Maren Morris and a choppy string part transported by plane from the Blue Nile. Soak up the moment halfway as Mayer proudly crosses the threshold of “Every Breath You Take,” from pro-forma romance – “I want you in the worst possible way” – to a full-blown stalker: “Is the door code still your birthday?”
This willingness to be ridiculous – to merge his oversized personality with the tasteful and somewhat anonymous contemporary adult ballads he’s been writing from day one – feels like a little breakthrough. “When I’m doing this album right now,” Mayer said a few months ago, “I’m laughing out loud. And I don’t even know if it’s because I think it’s great, or because I think it’s crazy. The truth is that he could have amplified it in both departments: no more thirst to prove himself beyond his influences, more fearlessness to work outside his comfort zone. Even though this is one of his strongest albums, it all seems intentionally minor. When Mayer returns to the stage this summer, he’ll accompany Dead & Co. on another trek, ripping solos through their classics instead of staying true to his new material. And frankly, who can blame him?
Yet Mayer’s insight suggests that at the heart of sob, rock lies a desire not only to be satisfied but to actually pleasure himself, to generate new enthusiasm for his work. What other metric could there be for a John Mayer album in 2021? And if he doesn’t clean that bar then, really, what’s wrong with him? Always neurotic and aggressively self-aware, he has already protected himself from criticism, appearing on the defensive even before the album’s release: “I want to be in trouble. I want someone to tell me it’s shit,” he Told Zane Lowe. “It’s called sob rock because it is a shit. “But it’s not shit, and it’s not even that provocative. Intentionally, sob rock is the sound of a man alone in his success, playing against himself on the world’s most expensive chessboard – ooh and ahh in front of his own prowess, significantly scratching his chin and then making a joke when the going gets tough. too intense. He seems comfortable and complacent. Never lose, never win.
Buy: Gross trade
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