John Mayer Says He “Shitposted” His New Album. Should That Change How We Listen to It?

Does the irony get in the way of "Sob Rock"?

July 16, 2021 11:36 am
John Mayer
John Mayer performs onstage at The O2 Arena on October 13, 2019 in London, England.

Typically, in the days leading up to a big album release, artists will give us the hard sell, walking journalist after journalist through the inspiration behind the new material and explaining why, in their humble opinion, it’s their best work yet. And yet earlier this week, in an interview with Zane Lowe promoting his new album Sob Rock (out today), John Mayer essentially shrugged and admitted he’s trolling us.

“I went, ‘Well, I don’t have to do anything I don’t want to do. And in fact, I can make a record that’s in some way provocative, if not antagonizing.’ And then I did what I thought was going to be antagonizing, and this is the most important part of the conversation, I think, creatively,” Mayer told Lowe. “For me, it was like, ‘I want to get in trouble. I want someone to tell me this is shit.’ And I made a record that to me at the time, only in a way to coax something out of me that I wouldn’t have normally done: shitpost a record. It’s called Sob Rock because it’s a shitpost.”

“But more importantly, it’s what I thought was a shitpost, and this gets down to where artists sit in front of you and play you what they think is their garbage,” he elaborated. “And you go, ‘That’s the best thing I ever heard you play.’ It makes a mockery of their interpretation of the experience. Which is just enough to break out of the mold and make something unique.”

For those with a healthier relationship to the internet who may not be familiar with the phenomenon of “shitposting,” Urban Dictionary defines it as “ironically posting something which to the average person looks just like a cringy or weird or stereotypical post conforming to a norm, but is intended to mock, insult, or amuse.” These days, it most often takes the form of intentional bad or nonsensical memes. On Sob Rock, Mayer is ironically leaning hard into the ’80s yacht-rock aesthetic, from the gated reverb drum sounds on “Last Train Home” and the soft focus and intentionally overwrought glances of the “Shot in the Dark” video to the fake “Nice Price” sticker on the album cover. But what exactly are we supposed to make of it when we’ve been told ahead of time that’s not so much a genuine artistic statement as it is some sort of winking bit? Will how we feel about this record be determined by whether or not we thought it was funny when Weezer covered Toto’s “Africa”?

It’s fine if Mayer used the whole “shitposting” angle as a way of forcing himself to break away from any preoccupation with being “cool” and just make the album he wanted to make. But, despite what he says, there’s nothing “provocative” or “antagonizing” about Sob Rock; if you really happen to despise Phil Collins, this one’s maybe not for you, but ultimately the ’80s schtick only goes so far, and it mostly just sounds like every other John Mayer album — bland, inoffensive soft-rock tracks that you can ignore in a coffeeshop.

In a way, Sob Rock is a microcosm of Mayer’s career as a whole. It’s got a big personality, and it’s kind of funny, but the substance isn’t there. What’s always been odd and frustrating about Mayer is that he’s been churning out hits for 20 years now, but while he clearly has a devoted fanbase who’ll buy anything he puts out, none of it has felt particularly artistically relevant or innovative. His gig as a touring guitarist with Dead & Co. has showcased his prowess on the instrument more in recent years (thankfully), but his own material has always felt like a bit of a waste of his talent. Sob Rock, to its credit, is one of his best; tracks like “Last Train Home” and “All I Want Is to Be With You” are catchy and well-executed, and overall the record is boosted by the presence of producer Don Was, bassist Pino Palladino and Maren Morris, who contributes backing vocals on a few songs. But it’s hard to shake the feeling that Mayer hasn’t fully committed to its vibe — ironically or otherwise — and the “shitposting” explanation seems more like a way to pre-empt critics who aren’t thrilled with it. He’s essentially saying “Oh, you thought this record was bad? I did that on purpose, as a joke” the same way an insecure teen boy will mumble “Just kidding” after complimenting his crush to deflect any possible rejection.

There are some extremely solid moments on Sob Rock as well as one woefully bad one (the problematic “Why You No Love Me?”, which features Mayer singing “Why you no love me, why you no even care?” in faux-broken English), but for the most part, it’s just another middle-of-the-road, milquetoast entry in his catalog. It’d almost be more interesting if it was pure shit. There’s something to be said for taking a big creative swing, even if it winds up being a miss, and owning your artistic choices. Instead of leaning in and just embracing the type of music he wants to make, Mayer has couched his latest in unnecessary irony, along with a failsafe excuse for anyone who may not enjoy it. But if he’s not even all the way onboard with the theme, why should we be?

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