John Mayer’s love letter to yacht rock goes beyond nostalgia


John Mayer’s savvy use of Instagram and TikTok has made him one of the very few over-40 guitar wizards to connect with kids from the generation (or two) behind his. Yet it’s easy to imagine that the most meaningful engagement he’s had on social media lately came with somebody in his mid-60s.

“Killer new track John,” Steve Lukather of Toto wrote in a comment on Mayer’s June 9 Instagram post about his latest studio album, “Sob Rock,” and its lead single, “Last Train Home.” Lukather, an architect of the highly chillaxed soft-rock sound developed in Los Angeles in the early 1980s, went on to praise Mayer’s “tasty playing” and to say that “Last Train Home” had the makings of “a smash” — the ultimate proof of concept for Mayer’s homage to the era of soulful white dudes, pastel color schemes and Bret Easton Ellis bestsellers.

A pop heartthrob with a comedian’s wit and an instrumentalist’s chops, Mayer, 43, says he took up this style — think Don Henley, Steve Winwood, synthed-up Fleetwood Mac, non-God-mode Eric Clapton — because he found it comforting during the pandemic to be reminded of music he heard in his youth. You also get the sense, given his pre-COVID stint touring with members of the Grateful Dead, that he was eager to flex different muscles — and to hook into an already-blooming ’80s revival that counts Tame Impala and Thundercat among its practitioners. (A recent essay in GQ referred to this aesthetic, with its spirit of coolly laid-back adulthood, as “Spago rock” after Wolfgang Puck’s iconic L.A. eatery.)

From its picture-perfect album cover on down, though, “Sob Rock” — Mayer’s eighth studio LP and his follow-up to 2017’s “The Search for Everything” — is so crisply rendered that it achieves an almost art-project-like quality that transcends those emotional and commercial circumstances. In an interview with the Blackbird Spyplane newsletter, the singer spoke with characteristic precision about his vision, saying his goal was to “make a new record from archival cloth” — to “find a way not to reproduce something,” he added, “but continue to produce it from the original loom.”

Inspired, he’s said, by Quentin Tarantino’s casting various OGs in his movies, Mayer recruited ’80s studio standouts like keyboardist Greg Phillinganes and percussionist Lenny Castro to complement his usual players; their work provides just the right sparkle and groove to conjure the moment when blues-based rock was giving way to something shinier and more synthetic — a sonic manifestation of the affluent optimism of the day. (Don Was co-produced the album with Mayer.)

Cover of John Mayer's 2021 album "Sob Rock"

Mayer says he wanted to “make a new record from archival cloth.”

(Columbia Records)

Even the record’s marketing material, including old-school billboards peppered around L.A., nail the exact fonts his predecessors would’ve used. “Make every drive a road trip,” one of the billboards reads — which, again, [chef’s kiss].

Of course, Mayer’s expert world-building — the latest act of curation by this discerning collector of high-end wristwatches — wouldn’t be nearly as fun to take part in if he didn’t fill the place with solid tunes, and “Sob Rock” has plenty of those. A restless romancer once known for his willingness to kiss and tell, Mayer here addresses his reputation as a crummy partner: “Some people ’round here been calling me crazy / Some people say I’ll never love someone,” he sings in “Til the Right One Comes,” which shimmers like an outtake from “Tango in the Night.”

But he also presents himself as a sensitive man who’s been mishandled by women; more than one song depicts him in a heroic light for having used those experiences to learn to change his ways, which feels like a very Don Henley approach to maturity.

As with Henley, what brings you around to Mayer’s side is his songwriting — the luscious melodies in “Why You No Love Me” and the Dire Straits-ish “Wild Blue” and the vivid images in “Carry Me Away” (“You carnivore, you loose cannon”) and “New Light,” where his self-pity takes this gorgeous shape: “I’m the boy in your other phone / Lighting up inside your drawer at home, all alone.”

In the wistful “Shot in the Dark,” one of several tunes with backing vocals from country star Maren Morris, Mayer longs for an ex by rhyming “I want you in the worst way” with “Is the gate code still your birthday?” — an instant-classic addition to the ranks of great monied L.A. love songs.

Then there’s “Shouldn’t Matter But It Does,” a strummy, slow-mo ballad about another broken relationship in which he ponders what might’ve been: “It could have been always / It could have been me / We could have been busy naming baby number three.”

Mayer’s sore-throat voice sounds so cooled-out in that one that you can almost picture him lying down as he sings. But with a wink of his eye — or, wait, is that a tear? — the tender and knowing “Sob Rock” is his testament to how hard it is getting easy right.

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