And yet for all the stylistic cosplay of the album’s visual presentation, very little of this aesthetic is in the songs, which are mostly eminently fine, occasionally oh-he-really-pulled-it-off nostalgic and more often dour. “Sob Rock” sometimes crackles with the frisson of a performer cracking the code on a well-worn style, but more often displays just how challenging it is to build a flashy house on a weak foundation.
Mayer has come this far by being a virtuosic guitar player, a fine songwriter and a largely uninspiring singer. None of that changes on “Sob Rock,” which teems with limp lyrics, blunt emotional broadsides that defy deconstruction. “It shouldn’t be easy/But it shouldn’t be hard/You shouldn’t be a stranger in your own backyard,” he declaims on “Shouldn’t Matter but It Does.” On “Shot in the Dark,” he laments, “I don’t know what I’m gonna do/I’ve loved seven other women and they all were you.” “Why You No Love Me” repeats the title phrase, the plea of a child, ad nauseam, past cute and cloying all the way to irksome.
Throughout the album, Mayer’s singing is utterly convictionless. His syllables are indifferent, blasé. On “Shouldn’t Matter but It Does,” he sometimes sounds like he’s leaving lyrical place holders he never returns to.
Where “Sob Rock” comes alive, as it were, is on the song outros, which nod to the sort of musicianship that has made Mayer a cognoscenti favorite and a seamless inclusion to Dead & Company, his primary musical outlet of the last half decade. There’s a saccharine twinkle running throughout “New Light,” and the end of “I Guess I Just Feel Like” is thick with appealingly dusty guitar.
“Sob Rock” — produced by Mayer with Don Was, a stalwart of ’80s and ’90s adult rock who’s worked with Bonnie Raitt, Bob Dylan and more — is full of throwback musical nuggets (“Last Train Home,” “Wild Blue”) designed to trigger old pleasure centers. That extends to the behind-the scenes players, who include Greg Phillinganes, who played with Michael Jackson, Anita Baker, Richard Marx and many more; the highly regarded session drummer Lenny Castro; and the bassist Pino Palladino, known for work with D’Angelo and Elton John. (Palladino also played on Don Henley’s 1989 solo pop breakthrough “The End of the Innocence,” a clear touchstone here.)