Once John Mayer mapped out the concept and the songs for Sob Rock, his first studio album since 2017’s The Search for Everything, he promised himself he was going to stick by it. “This is the record where I had 10 songs locked,” John Mayer tells Apple Music. “My record before suffered because the door was open to it the whole time—new songs would come in, old songs would go out. And so it became ‘This is my script, this is my movie.’ We're not going to write a different scene from a different movie.” For the veteran singer-songwriter, that meant immersing himself in the sound of the ’80s—aiming to synthesise a piece of work that feels true to the era while injecting his own flair.
Mayer cosies up to mellow, easygoing blue-eyed soul that oozes with nostalgia at every turn—from his serious, Don Henley-like posture on the album cover to bringing in session musician par excellence Greg Phillinganes (known for his work with Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder and Toto) to play keys. As always, his songs serve up a meticulously tidy mix of smooth pop with bluesy accents—though this time around, he does so in a more subdued manner.
Romantic ballads like “Shouldn’t Matter but It Does” and “Why You No Love Me” ease in with snare drum taps and weeping guitars, as Mayer tries to mend his broken heart. He lets a little looser on “Last Train Home”, stamping in vintage sonic pleasantries like gated drums and slow synth swells as he wonders if his time to settle down in a long-term relationship is running out. It’s a thought that Mayer’s been circling back to more now that he’s in his forties, especially on “Why You No Love Me”, on which he reconsiders how to ask this no-win question. “I have spoken those words for a long time in relationships,” Mayer says. “Maybe it takes 43 years to ask that question, but you still ask it in the language of a child? I've never written more brutal lyrics in my life.”
Even if Mayer embraces these sounds with his usually slick, demure manner, he was keen on making sure that the album wasn’t too sentimental or overly dramatic. “This is the whole Sob Rock game—get sweet, but never sappy,” he says. “It’s demonstratively sweet and luscious, and melodic and colourful, but it's never to the point where it gets cloying and syrupy. I like to teeter on that line.”