In the middle of the summer, John Mayer released this album, and it sounded like a Hall & Oates album broke out. I couldn’t help but think of the last hit from Daryl Hall and John Oates, “Everything Your Heart Desires,” as I listened to the lead track on this record, “Last Train Home.” Just as they landed in the top 10 in 1988, this album is an attempt to lovingly remind us of 1988.
The parallels continue. After Daryl Hall and John Oates completely redefined radio pop and “new wave” with their album “Private Eyes” in 1981, they concentrated on refining their pop stylings, having their biggest success in the years following. John Mayer did a fair amount of experimenting on his 2006 album “Continuum” and in the years following, but this album represents a return to mainstream pop.
The thing with John Mayer is that he knows how to write a hook, and simultaneously, to tell us what he thinks and feels. When he burst on the scene in 2001, it was as a sensitive singer-songwriter type; it was mainstream pop, for an educated audience. He was successful enough to foray into blues, country, and jazz, but in the end, he is a pop singer-songwriter with something to say. He marries it with some smooth guitar solos, and pretty vocals, in such a way as to sound like a love letter to ‘70s and ‘80s pop-rock.
The title is a bit misleading, because the listener will not feel much sadness listening to this record. I think his own emotions are of a man entering middle-age, who has not successfully found a permanent romantic partnership, but most of the songs are upbeat and downright catchy. There is funk and disco sort of flirting with us as we listen, or maybe just an old-school notion of rhythm and blues.
The standout track is “Shot In The Dark,” despite its uncertainty, and even a certain nihilism in the lyrics. Then again, if you’re not singing along, or at least trying to as you listen, I don’t know what to tell you. I think perhaps he is toying with the incongruity of his defeated feelings, paired with something you can dance to. In any case, it’s really enjoyable.
I’m a little biased here, since I own outright the first three John Mayer albums, and consider them a sort of soundtrack to the first decade of this century, but I also have not really left the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, in terms of the music that I enjoy repeatedly.
I think the reason that nostalgia has such a currency now is that popular music to some extent has lost its musicality, in favor of quirky novelty, or crass sexual provocation. We can see the response, in for example, Bruno Mars, in his straightforward homage to’90s R&B, or in Lady Gaga’s foray into traditional pop, with Tony Bennett. The pendulum may swing back to full bands with actual instruments, and Mayer’s efforts here represent a contribution to that movement. With a running time of just over 38 minutes, you won’t waste your life, even if you don’t love it.
Mayer and the marketing team know what they are doing, because when you do see a video clip to go with any one of these songs as it plays on Spotify, you can see someone holding a Walkman, while a cassette tape plays.
In any case, I grew up during the ‘80s and the ‘90s, and you can do far worse than this flattery of the pop music of the time (and slightly before). I think he also owes a slight debt to the late ‘70s, and the Fleetwood Mac record “Rumours.” It does not surprise me that he is touring with a tribute band for the Grateful Dead. If the time doesn’t match up exactly right, the ambience does.
Maybe the effect of nostalgia is making some listeners believe that the 1980s were a more stable time, in contrast to our own. It wasn’t, but in these burdensome times, we can be convinced otherwise. I don’t think John Mayer is carefree, at least not on this record, but he does good work, to make us feel that way.
I know for sure that there must be some good grooves on this record, to make “I’m the boy in your other phone…Pushin’ 40 in the Friend Zone” go down easier.
I personally haven’t enjoyed a record this much since “folklore”, which is a bit ironic, given the personal history between Taylor Swift, and John Mayer. At least we can hope that John has learned something in his old age, vain as that hope might be.
Jason Kettinger is Associate Editor of Open for Business. He writes on politics, sports, faith and more.