John Mayer’s ‘Sob Rock’ Evokes ‘80s Era Don Henley and Steve Winwood

John Mayer emerged fully formed as an artist from an era that was almost bygone when he debuted — one of muscular, catchy, unthreatening pop rock — so to hear him tap into the actual heyday of that sound on “Sob Rock” feels not just unsurprising, but vaguely reassuring. In a constantly meme-ified culture, everything that’s old is new over and over again, and he hardly breaks new ground with this collection of songs after everyone from Tame Impala to Taylor Swift have drawn from vibrant, sterile 1980s radio hits for inspiration. But Mayer’s chops as a musician and singer elevate this frothy exercise into something (slightly) more substantial as he not only pays tribute but tests his own knowledge with precise recreations of the tone and technique of this squeaky-clean sound, going as far to recruit luminaries from that decade to shore up the legitimacy of “Sob Rock” into something worthy of the artists on whose shoulders he casually, and comfortably, stands.

Mayer indicated that he developed this record precisely as a concept, and set boundaries to see if he could follow through without breaking them. He immediately casts off Steve Winwood vibes on “Last Train Home,” collaborating with Maren Morris as he explores a timeless kind of primary-color sentiment that dominated the pop charts in the late ‘80s: “I’m not a fallen angel, I just fell behind / I’m out of luck and I’m out of time.” Because he never sounds like he’s trying too hard, it’s easy to assume that he isn’t at all, but it takes considerable effort to sound this relaxed, and this good. He bolsters that sound with contributions from keyboardist and Michael Jackson’s former musical director Greg Phillanganes, bassist Pino Pallandino, who worked on Don Henley’s iconic “The End of the Innocence,” and producer Don Was, responsible for the day-glo sound of Bonnie Raitt, The B-52s and Michael McDonald. 

“Shouldn’t Matter But It Does” splits the difference between Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Secret Garden,” a wistful ballad that would have become synonymous with the breakup scene in an ‘80s rom-com if it were released three decades earlier. In fact, almost every sing here could or should be on the soundtrack for a film starring Demi Moore or Rob Lowe (or both): the chugging, groovy “New Light” references Malibu and makes a plea to connect with a long-simmering crush (“’Cause if you give me just one night / You’re gonna see me in a new light”); Phillinganes’ watery synths volley with Mayer’s electric guitar on “Shot In the Dark,” the best song for an ‘80s Cameron Crowe movie never recorded; and “Til The Right One Comes” swings like a placeholder for Talking Heads’ “This Must be The Place” when some unlucky music supervisor discovered he or she couldn’t afford to license it for an opening title sequence surveying a young hopeful twentysomething’s arrival in New York City.

Of course, there are also some misguided moments, such as “Why You No Love Me,” featuring one of the worst choruses in his or any artist’s careers even if it is disguised in some really gorgeous, romantic melodies. It’s honestly a bit gobsmacking how good the music is in comparison to those lyrics — so much so, it almost feels like a test to see if the listener notices what he’s singing. Additionally, the ballad “I Guess I Just Feel Like” bumps right up to the threshold of generic with its contemplation about a world that’s changed, grown more callous, cares less (and where he finds less to care about). But the boomer charms of this music are so baked in that his core fans will likely eat it up with a spoon, waving their lighters in the dark at future concerts after drinking too much boxed wine. And again, if there’s a slight wink while he’s doing it, there’s nothing lazy about his execution; he’s a fantastic musician, and the arrangements are almost equal to those of Henley and Winwood.

After the Rick Springfield-esque “Carry Me Away,” he finishes the album with “All I Want Is To Be With You,” a song whose chorus dangerously resembles Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way,” and no level of earnestness from Mayer can disguise. It’s a minor betrayal of the central conceit of “Sob Rock,” which Mayer otherwise commits to so thoroughly that even the cover features a mock-up of the same bargain-big stickers that used to get slapped on CD long boxes. But it also serves as a reminder that artists who endure all kinda end up meeting in the middle: Mayer was never an iconoclast, but the singers and songwriters who inspired him here were working with the goal of staying relevant, and that happened because of consistency, not necessarily innovation. Not a joke but not quite worthy of taking seriously, “Sob Rock” comforts rather than challenges, and if fans want it exactly that way, there’s something to be said for how skillfully John Mayer delivers it. 

Sob Rock” releases July 16 on Apple Music.