With His New Album ‘Sob Rock’, John Mayer Gets Serious (Sort Of)

Underneath the layers of irony and sly humour is the most intense, emotionally raw record that Mayer has ever released.

john mayer sob rock photo

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John Mayer has always had an interesting relationship with sincerity.

In interviews, the man has developed his persona as a kind of winking mischief-maker, able to poke fun at himself and the music machine in equal measure. Unfailingly, he works to present himself as in on the joke, aware of his own foibles and his own reputation.

John Mayer the man and John Mayer the public figure might be theoretically distinct entities, but he’s worked hard to obscure the line between the two. How for real is he when he says reprehensible things like his dick being a “white supremacist”, or when he goes off on the poor-quality fonts used by some musicians? Are these deeply held positions, or are they grist for the mill of myth?

Mayer’s music is equally ironised — there is a particular kind of American excess to his best-known songs, a kind of drenched exuberance to the chorus of ‘Your Body Is A Wonderland’. This is music from out of the past, a universe where the ’80s never ended and noodling guitar solos never went out of style. To borrow a phrase from philosopher Eleanor Gordon-Smith, Mayer’s world is one where “everything is protein powder and nothing hurts”; a kind of glimmering utopia where no heartbreak is bad enough that it can’t be cured by a reverb-saturated fade-out.

Sob Rock The Shitpost

So given that ironic distance, the astonishing thing about Mayer’s new album, Sob Rock, is how sincere it is. It’s thoroughly uncool in a self-aware way, sure; that title is a stage wink, and you can’t name a song ‘Why You No Love Me’ without having at least some idea of how people will respond it.

But underneath the layers of reflection and sly humour is the most intense, emotionally raw record that Mayer has ever released, a yacht trip through turbulent waters that never diminishes itself to the level of a mere punchline.

The promotional roll-out for the record thus feels like a smokescreen, an artfully deployed sleight-of-hand trick to distract from the very real hurt at Sob Rock‘s core. Mayer himself has called the album a “shitpost”, and its artwork — Mayer leaning against a wall Tom Petty style, adorned with fake pricing stickers you’d find half rubbed off on a CD you picked up at a Salvo’s — is clearly designed to bring the record’s artificial glean of nostalgia to the fore.

But this is a book that cannot be judged by the joke on its cover. Album opener ‘Last Train Home’ might be a roll-call of ’80s cliches, but there is real heart to the way that Mayer sings about surrender; an acute sense of the fear that comes from submitting totally to a person and to a love. Even ‘Why You No Love Me’, the most ridiculous song on the record, pays out like a cigarette ash-smudged slot machine when taken at face value. “Don’t you know I want you?” is a well-worn phrase, but in Mayer’s mouth it takes on new life, snaking through listener’s ears with a real sense of desperation.

John Mayer, The King of Catharsis

And then, astonishingly, halfway through Sob Rock Mayer pulls off the impossible, nailing a genuine sense of uplift. Though the record starts in the fires of personal despair, it moves through them with a breakneck sense of pace.

‘Wild Blue’ is melancholy but assured; ‘All I Want Is To Be With You’ is a trembling song of the self, sung with total knowledge of who Mayer is and what he wants. And though ‘Carry Me Away’ opens with more Mayer misdirects — he calls himself both a “bore” and a “bummer” in the first stanza — it’s a paean to giving yourself completely to a lover, rather than more sadsack grumbling.

It is this feeling of catharsis that hangs around when the record collapses like a disco ball stomped on by an Italian loafer. Somehow, through the jokes and the ironic distance, Mayer makes a genuine connection, communicating fully with the listener, rather than drawing their attention to the seams holding the project together. It’s Mayer’s best record in years, and one of the most artful, honest American pop records to be released in recent memory. This time, finally, John Mayer is for real.

Joseph Earp is a staff writer for Music Junkee. Find him on Twitter.