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John Mayer Moves Forward by Going Back

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John Mayer performs during the 2015 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony in Cleveland, Ohio, April 18, 2015. (Aaron Josefczyk/Reuters) On his latest album, Sob Rock, the virtuosic singer-songwriter-guitarist finds fresh inspiration in the music of the 1980s.

I’ve always liked John Mayer — yes, even the jejune, college-tinged early John Mayer whom everyone now loves to hate. He writes memorable songs, he has a nice and open voice, and, because I’m predominantly seduced by melody, I’ve never been particularly irritated by the flippancy of some of his lyrics.

Still, I will admit to having wondered lately where Mayer could possibly go next. Since 2009’s Battle Studies, his output has been a touch schizophrenic. On Born and Raised (2012) and Paradise Valley (2013), he stripped his sound down, blending a Crosby, Stills, and Nash–esque acoustic-folk affect with the noodlings of J.J. Cale. 2017’s The Search for Everything sounds as if it started life as a raw John Mayer Trio effort before being handed over to Phil Spector. At some point, in around 2006, Mayer became a truly magnificent guitarist, but, outside of a few of his live shows, he has never quite managed to build the right showcase for his prodigious ability. My guess, such as it was, was that he would treat his latest album as a chance to change that.

Instead, he went back to 1986.

Superficially, Mayer’s eighth release, Sob Rock, is a throwback, sonically and aesthetically grounded in the mid-to-late Reagan era. The opening track, “Last Train Home,” is built atop a bed of warm digital synths and deliberately artefacted drums that sound as if they were recorded in the same studio as Toto’s Africa. The arpeggios of “Why You No Love Me” channel Air Supply in their All Out of Love phase; the bass on “Wild Blue” is straight Huey Lewis and the News; the falsetto musings that punctuate “I Guess I just Feel Like” echo U2’s “Running to Stand Still”; and, on the tight “New Light,” Mayer interrupts a “Gypsy”-era Fleetwood Mac vibe by dropping into a heavily compressed

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