The great thing about music — and the obnoxious thing about music criticism — is that the true success of a song is not measured in tracks streamed or sold, but in a song or album’s ability to evoke emotion. And the wonderfully difficult thing about reviewing any work of art is that every listener will feel something different, every song will impact the members of its audience in different ways and at different levels.
Analytically — emotion and feeling to the side — Sob Rock is a thing of exceptional beauty. It cannot be looked at as a work that exists solely to pay homage to a sound that existed in the ‘80s — yes, it takes elements from the music of those times, often sounding a bit like an Eagles record, but it is so much more than the things it pays homage to.
Musically, I have no criticism. Musically, I have nothing but reverence. John Mayer belongs to a very slim cadre of true musical artists — his skill goes far beyond the ‘Guitar Hero’ title that some have thrown his way. He is a blues man, through and through — his understanding of the complexities of blues and jazz theory is hard to comprehend, and that understanding of such real and soulful music has always added an element of intrigue to his records. That element is more present than ever before on Sob Rock. Here, Mayer shines in the art of his understatement.
When he chooses to pepper in solos, he could shred. He could embody a rock guitar god and rip never-ending, impossible to recreate guitar solos, but he does not. He employs the Clapton or Brian May method, a method that is exceptionally more difficult to pull off and provides a far better result. He plays fewer notes, but the notes he does play are chosen with extreme care. There is purpose and thought behind every note in every solo — and those instrumental moments of guitar soloing are just short enough that they leave you wanting a little bit more. To create that feeling is an artform that few have mastered.
There is a wonderful simplicity to Sob Rock. It really serves as a musical mode of transportation, a gateway to a different kind of emotional connection. It is understated and not overt in its messages; rather, it plays on subtlety to achieve its goal.
When this album was first announced, I had high hopes. When I found out that the singles Mayer had been releasing since 2019 were going to be part of the album, in between disappointment for less new music than I had hoped, I was ecstatic, largely for one specific reason: the 2019 single, ‘I Guess I Just Feel Like.’
To me, there is a very small category of songs out there that I can classify as ‘perfect’ songs. ‘Perfect’ meaning that it satisfies the analytical part of my brain — the music is strong, purposeful; it furthers the message of the lyrics and the story of the song — and it satisfies the emotional part of my brain, in that it connects with me in some powerful, unique way.
‘I Guess I Just Feel LIke’ is a perfect song. Its message is unique, something that pop music had never really deigned to explore before. It’s music is real; it’s honesty is earnest; and its connection is powerful.
I spent the past several weeks in uncontainable excitement for an album full of brand-new Mayer songs that might just capture the same sonic or lyrical elements that make ‘I Guess I Just Feel Like’ so amazing.
Sob Rock does not disappoint.
‘Shouldn’t Matter but it Does,’ once again, provides a moment of extreme, raw honesty, supplemented by the simplicity of an acoustic guitar with slight synth-enhancements and piano fills. It’s an easy song to identify with. The kind of pain Mayer is expressing is hyper-personal, yet remains universal.
“I shouldn’t leave you messages in every little song / It could’ve been always / It could’ve been me.”
‘Why You No Love Me’ is probably the most harshly criticized track on the record, the clear reason being the painfully incorrect grammar in the title and chorus. But that choice was a fascinating and bold one from Mayer; it is an artistic decision. He could have written ‘Why Don't You Love Me’ — it would have fit the same rhythm. But in writing the chorus with blatantly adolescent, incorrect grammar, he frames the story in a far different way; he accesses the pain he is feeling in a different way. This is not adult pain — this question comes from a place of childlike innocence and naivete. And the music that supplements this choice — acoustic guitars and a slide guitar that are once again reminiscent of The Eagles — provide a really interesting and unique soundscape for Mayer, something that, after 20 years of music and eight records, is a difficult thing to achieve.
If this album suffers from anything, it’s a slight over-saturation of songs that are slightly too similar, thematically. But I can’t fault Mayer for that. He is an artist and a musician, and the themes that he explores — of entering his forties and still looking for a strong relationship, still looking for love and family — are themes that he is personally grappling with.
“Some people say I’ll never love someone / That’s alright, give it time and maybe, I / Prove you wrong when the right one comes,” he sings on ‘Til the Right One Comes.’
That song has guitar solos of the perfect length and tonality that serve to musically express the pangs of longing and searching, which is a really interesting way to elevate a song — not to recreate the melody in a guitar solo, but to re-emphasize the emotion of a song in a guitar solo.
That is the artistry of Mayer. That is the genius of Mayer.
Honesty and cleverly expressed pain, tied together with real music that accentuates and furthers the themes and emotions his lyrics express. Every musical moment carries with it clear thought and purpose; every word and rhythm was carefully and purposefully chosen and crafted, as was every guitar tone and drum kit.
Sob Rock proves that there is a reason John Mayer has remained at the forefront of contemporary pop music since his debut in 2001. There is an element in all of his music that people are drawn to. Sob Rock is yet another example of that element; wisdom and self-reflection that provides a wonderful listening experience. It remains uplifting and hopeful, despite the pain that permeates it. From the purposefully off-key bass note that ushers in the turn-around in ‘All I Want Is to Be With You’ to the amazing blues solos in ‘I Guess I Just Feel Like,’ Sob Rock cements the legend of John Mayer.