John Mayer is unlike any other artist of his generation. If you’ve been following the American songwriter’s career over the past two decades, then you’ve probably balked at some of his interviews (he said what to Rolling Stone?) and been genuinely surprised by some of his musical deviations (how did John Mayer end up in the Grateful Dead?)

But what’s most unique about Mayer is the fact he’s never sounded like anyone other than himself. On his new album, Sob Rock, Mayer sounds familiar, consistent and thorough, with nothing on the album giving the impression of being left to chance. Sob Rock is a record of pristine soft rock music made for a 21st century pop audience. And despite arriving 20 years and eight albums into his career, it finds Mayer sounding more relevant than ever. 

To be clear, zeitgeist-chasing has ever been Mayer’s MO. Dating back to 2001’s aptly titled Room For Squares, Mayer’s made no bones about his distinctly uncool influences. After being turned onto blues guitar via a fascination with Stevie Ray Vaughan, the teenaged Mayer devoted himself to the six-string with the application of an out-and-out nerd. 

As a result, he developed serious chops, good enough to establish long-term studio relationships with session maestros Pino Palladino and Steve Jordan and good enough to fill the role of Jerry Garcia in a reunited Grateful Dead lineup. But Sob Rock shows that Mayer’s virtuosic talent isn’t the only thing keeping him at the crust of contemporary culture. 

Watch “Welcome to Sob Rock”

Sure, songs like ‘Wild Blue’ and ‘I Guess I Just Feel Like’ show-off Mayer’s nimble-fingered, jam band propensity, but more significantly, Sob Rock is a reminder that John Mayer knows how to write a pop song—the sort that’d cause a mate to nudge you at a party while mouthing, “tchoon”.

At 10 songs and 38-minutes in length, Sob Rock is Mayer’s most focused collection of tracks since his 2006 opus, Continuum. But while that record saw Mayer swerve from the AM pop-rock of his first two albums into Southern-influenced blue eyed soul, Sob Rock takes its cues from the finely manicured soft rock heyday of the late-‘70s and 1980s. 

It’s an often-reviled period of pop music, a time when Bob Dylan said hello to synthesisers and Bruce Springsteen replaced the E Street Band with a gated reverb unit. But Mayer, the sly iconoclast that he is, recognises the merits of the sleek and measured soft rock aesthetic. 

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On the whole, the tenor is more Tom Petty than Phil Collins, while lead single ‘New Light’ could’ve been stripped directly from Fleetwood Mac’s Mirage. ‘New Light’ is the record’s most enigmatic track. Produced by Jay Z and Rihanna collaborator No I.D., ‘New Light’ is as pure a pop song as Mayer has ever released and yet neatly coheres with the album’s soft rock impressionism.

Watch the official music video for ‘Shot in the Dark’

Sob Rock begins with the more conspicuous period piece, ‘Last Train Home’, which features a snare drum sound snatched directly from the Boss’ Tunnel of Love. As soon as Mayer’s trademark vocal fry comes in, however, the track overcomes any risk of alienating listeners. This effect lasts throughout the record—you don’t need to share Mayer’s enthusiasm for the period to which he’s paying tribute to enjoy Sob Rock. To the contrary, for all the cosplay in the album’s DNA, the record will sound thoroughly comforting to John Mayer fans circa 2021.

The track-listing can loosely be broken up into two distinct categories. On the one hand there are the shiny, early-MTV referencing cuts such as ‘Last Train Home’, ‘New Light’, ‘Wild Blue’, ‘Shot in the Dark’, ‘Til the Right One Comes’ and ‘Carry Me Away’. These tracks tend to move at a snugly mid-tempo pace and include flourishes of expensive 1980s synthesisers.

On the other side of the card are the bloodied and bruised ballads, ‘Shouldn’t Matter But It Does’, ‘Why You No Love Me’, ‘I Guess I Just Feel Like’ and ‘All I Want Is To Be With You’. These tracks often lean into a spacious Americana sound, with country star Maren Morris providing background vocals on a number of occasions. 

So where’s Mayer’s heart at on Sob Rock? His records have frequently given attention to his haplessness in love and this tradition continues on Sob Rock. In fact, Mayer might never before have sounded as desolate as he does on ‘Shouldn’t Matter But It Does’ and ‘I Guess I Just Feel Like’. The record’s clean-shaven musicality prevents it from turning into a moan-fest, but Mayer’s confessions of loneliness and the questionable impulses loneliness creates are impressively frank. 

Mayer brings the album to a close with ‘All I Want Is To Be With You’, a twanging, widescreen ballad that owes debt to U2’s The Joshua Tree. The song’s repeated refrain, “All I want is to be with you,” sounds charmingly reminiscent of the Backstreet Boys’ ‘I Want It That Way’. Intentional or otherwise, this juxtaposition perfectly sums up the artist that is John Mayer: reverential, accomplished and never afraid to deviate from that which is deemed cool.

John Mayer’s latest album Sob Rock is available now