In the darkest days of the pandemic, John Mayer turned to the sounds that brought him a feeling of comfort: music from the ‘80s.
At 43, Mayer resides in the Gen-X realm of being raised on radio and MTV, and he’s filtered those influences into his eighth album, “Sob Rock,” which arrives Friday.
Nearly 20 years after his debut album (“Room for Squares”), and the idealism of debut single “No Such Thing,” Mayer continues to explore. “Sob Rock” is Mayer’s first album in four years, as he’s committed to touring with Dead & Company. His last album, “The Search for Everything” (2017) was a musical rendering of a psychiatrist’s couch, while “Born and Raised” (2012) tapped into his interest in Americana.
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But for this latest effort, he’s dedicated to revisiting the ‘80s, not through tinny synthesizers or with overwrought flamboyance, but pleasant, pillow-y soft rock.
The album cover is “Miami Vice” by way of Billy Squier, while the opening song, “Last Train Home,” shimmers with significant Steve Winwood vibes circa “Don’t You Know What the Night Can Do?”
An Eau de Toto permeates “Wild Blue” and “Shot in the Dark,” with Mayer’s vocals both sexy and silken as he continues his quest for love.
On an album with many highlights, “Shouldn’t Matter But It Does” is a standout – an honest litany of “shoulda beens” (with a well-placed expletive) over gentle keyboard strains that complement the song’s pensive tone.
“New Light” is an irresistible chugger about second chances, with Mayer lamenting he’s “pushing 40 in the friend zone.” But when he croons, “I want to take two/I want to break through/I want to know the real thing about you” his earnestness is believable. The tune takes a surprising percussive zag before segueing into one of Mayer’s clean-lined guitar solos that, coupled with the synths that fade out the song, are ‘80s glory.
While Mayer often has a propensity for naval gazing, “I Guess I Just Feel Like” showcases him at his most unpretentious and introspective. “I guess I just feel like the joke’s getting old, the future is fading and past is on hold,” he sings, capping the song with an impassioned electric guitar solo.
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A couple of moments on “Sob Rock” dabble in more rustic sounds. “Til the Right One Comes” rolls with a few keyboard squiggles under its country tinge. And the album closer, “All I Want Is to Be with You” finds Mayer doing his best Bruce Springsteen impression, unveiling his vulnerability with a hushed sparseness.
But the heartbeat of “Sob Rock” is Mayer’s continuing maturity – and his deft ability to pay homage, sans silliness.