John Mayer channels 'Miami Vice' and 80s hair on his seductive new album Sob Rock

Sob Rock is the eighth album by John Mayer - Getty
Sob Rock is the eighth album by John Mayer - Getty

It’s back to the 1980s for the American heartthrob singer-songwriter John Mayer. Indeed, the cool blue and pretty-in-pink album cover so convincingly recreates the graphic style of that decade, I wouldn’t be surprised to discover a dog-eared copy in my record collection with a fading HMV sticker. The 43-year-old guitar slinger looks like he’s borrowed his wardrobe from Miami Vice and hair spray from Richard Marx.

These are big clues to the sound of his eighth album, the teasingly titled and supremely seductive Sob Rock. From the opening chords that wed shiny guitar and pillowy synthesiser on ‘Last Train Home’, to the guitar licks on the romantic closer ‘All I Want is to Be With You’, Mayer is diving deep into a soft-rock comfort zone. There’s no attempt to tap into the kind of machine-edged synth-pop flamboyance that has gained an edge of retro credibility with the passage of time. Sob Rock is what the 1980s really sounded like just at that point when all the veteran 1970s rockers took in their flares and invested in DX-7 synthesisers and Lynn drums instead. Think Eric Clapton, Phil Collins, Hall & Oates, Stevie Winwood and Don Henley serenading the Boys of Summer.

It may not be cool, but boy, does it sound good. No expense has been spared here on getting that perfect blow-dried tone. Don Was of funk rockers Was (Not Was) is in the production seat, there are two members of Toto in the backing band, and fretless wonder Pino Palladino pops up on bass, doing for Mayer what he once did for Paul Young and Tears for Fears.

What makes Sob Rock more than empty pastiche is the superb quality of the songwriting. Mayer is huge in America, but under-the-radar in the UK. His records focus on sensitive songcraft, yet he’s also a world-class guitarist, as if you crossed James Blunt with Stevie Ray Vaughan. The solos here are economical but sensational, with a nimble, melodious flow that calls to mind Mark Knopfler channelling BB King.

In the US, Mayer has been romantically linked to Jennifer Aniston, Taylor Swift and Katy Perry (among other glamorous actresses and singers). He chides critics of his love life on the jaunty ‘Till The Right One Comes Along’, singing: “The lucky in love call themselves winners / And losers are sinners who’ve gone astray / As if I woke up lonely one morning / Looked around and decided I would stay that way.”

Sob Rock offers up 10 easy-on-the-ear tracks that grapple with the downside of love. It’s a deceptively simple album, but songs such as ‘Shouldn’t Matter But It Does’ carry considerable emotional heft, as Mayer reflects on wasted opportunities. The playful chorus of ‘Why You No Love Me’ is almost impossible to dislodge once it gets in your head, while an undercurrent of despair sneaks into the downbeat anthem ‘I Guess I Just Feel Like’. Mayer’s songs about bruised male egos, damaged hearts and hard-earned life lessons conjure up slow motion sequences from a long-lost John Hughes movie. It really is Some Kind of Wonderful.

Out on Columbia now