Do you hear the drums echoing tonight? John Mayer certainly did when he wrote “Last Train Home”, a catchy little yacht-rocker that fills its sails with nostalgia for Toto’s 1982 hit, “Africa”. He even went so far as to draft in Toto’s percussionist Lenny Castro and touring keyboardist Greg Phillinganes. This soothing soft rock continues throughout the 43-year-old singer-songwriter’s eighth album. Think: layered synths, slick guitar solos and grazed vocals. Think: Don Henley’s “Boys of Summer”, Richard Marx’s “Hazard” and John Waite’s “Missing You”. Songs gently stewing in melancholic nostalgia – even when their sound was new.
In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Mayer explained how the pandemic had him reaching for the “security-blanket aspect” of Eighties sounds, which reminded him of a safer time. And there is something undeniably comforting about Sob Rock. It’s produced by Don Was, who helped create the original sound with artists such as Glenn Frey, Bonnie Raitt and Michael McDonald. Was packages Mayer’s tales of heartbreak with an easy-going warmth, designed to keep fingers tapping on steering wheels in the late afternoon.
Mayer’s mood is pure audio Athena poster: sexy vulnerability, airbrushed tenderness, clip-framed chords. His stubble-kiss of a voice is equal parts sleaze, cheese, and genuine lost boy from Connecticut. His themes are romantic regret and last rolls of the dice. “Last Train Home” finds him pleading: “I’m not a fallen angel/ I just fell behind.” On the upbeat, funk-inflected “New Light” he sings of “pushing 40 in the friend zone … Oh you don't think twice about me.” To the mellow groove of “Wild Blue” he sighs that “missing you belongs to me”, and polishes off the emotion with a Mark Knopfler-indebted guitar solo (the kind that’s not cool to love, but I do). He lands on the wrong side of naff with the beach-bar whinge of “Why You No Love Me?”.
Of course, for those aware of Mayer’s romantic history, it can be awks hearing him sing – mostly self-pityingly – about love. He’s been called out recently by famous ex-girlfriends for treating them badly. In her 2020 memoir, Jessica Simpson says she was so afraid of disappointing the headmaster’s son that she “couldn’t even text him without having someone check my grammar and spelling”. In her song “Dear John”, Taylor Swift – who dated him when she was 19 and he was 32 – asked, “Don't you think I was too young to be messed with?”. In this context, lines like “I want you in the worst way” (from the lullsome “Shot in the Dark”) seem ill-chosen. Although the listener’s inner gossip will latch onto the following line – “Is the gate code still your birthday?” – and wonder if Katy Perry or Jennifer Aniston might need to reset their home security system.
If I were running Mayer’s PR, I’d suggest some more lines about owning past mistakes. There is a little of that on the acoustic “Guess I Just Feel Like”. The melody blows through you like a warm breeze, as it does on so many of Mayer’s songs. It’s genuinely enjoyable. Fairly forgettable. A pleasant enough middle-lane trip down what Mayer – with knowing cliché – calls “the highway of dreams”.