‘Love is a Verb:’ a love letter to John Mayer and an honest review of ‘Sob Rock’

From childhood reminiscing to Mayer’s controversial new hit “Why You No Love Me?”, Life editor Phoebe reflects on how John Mayer’s music has impacted her.

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“Sob Rock” album cover (Columbia Records)

Phoebe Sklansky, Deputy Life Editor

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not an expert on the intricacies of music composition. But one thing I am an expert on is John Mayer. Mayer—my main celebrity crush since I was around five—and his music have been a constant in my life for a decade and a half. When I’m having a rough day, “Continuum,” “Room for Squares” and “Born and Raised” are my comfort blankets. If I’m in a feel-good mood? Cue “Heart of Life.” If I just wanna vibe? “Wildfire” on repeat. If I’m mourning a dying situationship? Well, in a literal sense, any John Mayer song—just to remind me that he would treat me right. But more realistically, I turn on “Slow Dancing in a Burning Room.”

 

“Phoebe Mayer” has a nice ring to it, no?

I often joke about my love for John (I’ve decided that we’re on a first name basis by now), and, yes, I can refer you to the poster on my wall and the stickers on my water bottle and laptop, but he means a lot more to me than a Redbubble sticker I purchased on a whim. I first started listening to his music in the backseat of my mom’s car, when she’d pop in a CD (yes, those used to exist) of “Room for Squares” as she chauffeured me from first grade to ballet class.

My first “favorite song” that I ever remember having is “83,” in which John reminisces about being five years old and wearing a Superman cape back in 1983. #Relatable for nostalgic six-year-old Phoebe. As my mom would eagerly tell you, I called it “The Lunchbox Song” because the lines Whatever happened to my lunchbox / When came the day that it got / Thrown away and don’t you think I should have had some say / In that decision completely devastated my elementary school self, who reveled in picking out a new lunchbox every August. (And yes, I am still an absolute wh*re for school supplies as a senior in college.)

Fast forward a few years, and I saw John in concert on his “Born and Raised” tour with my parents, like the super cool middle schooler I was. My adoration was cemented. Then, amidst the pandemic, John was the one to bring comfort to my mom and myself: whether we were cooking together with “Stop This Train” playing in the background or watching his weekly episodes of “Current Mood” on Instagram Live, his presence was familiar and grounding. And, let’s face it, “Drone Shot of My Yacht” might be his catchiest song ever. His TikToks never fail to amuse me, and today, I’ve begun counting down the days until my mom joins me in Nashville for his “Sob Rock” tour and John inevitably proposes to me.

 

Phoebe's trusty water bottle, featuring a John Mayer Sticker
Phoebe’s trusty water bottle, featuring a John Mayer Sticker (Hustler Staff/Phoebe Sklansky)

The actual, like, music stuff

Musically, John Mayer stands out because he is simply so damn good at so many damn things. He’s a guitar maestro—none other than the legendary Eric Clapton called him a “master”—and his guitar solo two minutes and 53 seconds into “Wildfire” makes me weak in the knees. 

And, my god, his voice. Dreamy, soulful and—dare I say—incredibly sexy. (Go listen to “Your Body is a Wonderland” on Spotify and watch the GIF that plays…you’ll thank me later.) Over the course of my life, I’ve faced few existential crises as dramatic as when I found out that a growth was threatening John Mayer’s vocal cords in 2012—but, by the grace of the Guitar Gods (I’m looking at you, Jimi Hendrix and Carlos Santana) and a few botox injections on the ol’ cords, he recovered.

When it comes to lyrics and meaning, John Mayer has had quite the evolution. From playboy to heartbroken lover to Montana cowboy to chill dude, he’s certainly kept us on our toes, which I’ll get deeper into later. For now, a quick amateur rundown of his discography as I lived it:

 

“Room For Squares” put John Mayer on the map. (Aware Records/Columbia Records)

“Room For Squares,” 2001

This album put Mayer on the map and made him a heartthrob, because duh. Standouts include “Your Body is a Wonderland,” “Why Georgia” and “No Such Thing.” These songs transport me to an easier time and, listening to them now, it’s clear that their excellence made John’s rise to stardom inevitable.

“Heavier Things,” 2003 

Mayer continues his broody crooning. Standouts include “Daughters” (hi, Dad!) and “Clarity.” A lot of great songs, all around. For “Gilmore Girls” fans, this is John’s peak Jess era, which is the highest compliment I can give. No more needs to be said.

“Continuum,” 2006 

It simply can’t be a coincidence that John released my favorite of his albums on my birthday (September 12, if you want to buy me a present). As the title suggests, he spends a lot of time on this album reflecting on, well, time, as evidenced by “Stop This Train,” “Waiting on the World to Change,” “Belief” and “Gravity,” which are incidentally some of his biggest standouts from the album. Oh, and the song “Slow Dancing in a Burning Room” will simultaneously give you butterflies and stab you in the stomach.

“Battle Studies,” 2009 

A very solid album. Some subpar songs, but it still feels like a cozy mug of John Mayer tea. Taylor Swift, one of his many famous exes, makes a cameo in “Half of My Heart,” and this is where I have to give a disclaimer that I do not condone his playboy past by any means. Swifties, don’t come for me. Album standouts include “Who Says” and “Perfectly Lonely.”

“Born and Raised,” 2012 

John pivots and enters his bluesy, folksy era. Honestly, it’s a lot more Nashville-y than his previous work, though it never nears full country. Fun fact: the “Born and Raised” tour was my first John concert, and no, I will not be sharing photos of middle school me posing in the crowd. Standouts include “Queen of California” and “Something Like Olivia,” although my favorite song—and one of my favorites of all time—is “Age of Worry.” I transferred during COVID, which is arguably an insane thing to do, and this song got me through it; “Don’t be scared to walk alone / Don’t be scared to like it” really hit home in that time of uncertainty. Luckily, I’ve found that Vanderbilt is not a place where I walk alone, but nonetheless it’s a necessary reminder that it’s important to enjoy spending time with yourself. 

“Paradise Valley,” 2013  

Mayer’s second album of his bluesy, folksy phase. If I’m being entirely candid here, this is when he began to lose me musically. I’m not saying it’s not good or that I don’t enjoy it in the background while I’m cooking, but I am saying that it has fewer songs that I can belt out word for word compared to the earlier albums, which I know by heart. Thankfully, this album has redeeming qualities: I’ve already mentioned “Wildfire” multiple times in this article, and it’s because I f*cking love that song. Other standouts include “Dear Marie,” “Paper Doll” (rumored to be about Taylor Swift) and “Who You Love” (featuring one of his other famous exes, Katy Perry). 

“The Search for Everything,” 2017 

Ugh. Okay, so this is where he actually lost me. As embarrassing as it is for a John megafan to say, I can’t name more than three songs off of this album, and one of the ones I know is only because I hate the title (@ “Emoji of a Wave”). And it’s not that this album is objectively bad. It’s all relative, and this is just my opinion. He does bring the same guitar prowess and silky voice that he does to the rest of his work, but the lyrics simply lag and underwhelm. I’ll never forget calling my parents from college, only to find out that they were at one of his concerts on this tour—the ultimate betrayal—and that my dad was utterly disturbed by the dancing panda head during “Still Feel Like Your Man,” which is totally valid. Standouts (I guess?) include “Love on the Weekend,” “Roll it on Home” and “In the Blood” (which are admittedly quite good. My standards for John are just far above average.)

“Sob Rock,” 2021 

Released a week and a half ago, “Sob Rock” seems to mark a new period of John, one which I’m dubbing his “zen“ era. It’s a uniquely crafted album, since the first single came out all the way back in May 2018. I distinctly remember listening to “New Light” as my mom and I drove to my high school graduation dress fitting, which feels worlds away now. Other singles included “I Guess I Just Feel Like” and “Carry Me Away,” both released in 2019, giving the album a very different vibe from Mayer’s previous work. While the songs fit together coherently, it’s a distinctive experience to listen to this album as a whole, since fans have been familiar with the aforementioned songs for two to three years already. More thoughts below.

“Sob Rock,” continued. Sigh.

If you haven’t figured it out by now, my mom is as big a John Mayer fan as I am, except I get to make funnier jokes about it, since she’s like, married or whatever (again: hi, Dad!). When I first called her to discuss his newest album, “Sob Rock,” we collectively sighed. While we’re glad he seems to have matured and embraced vulnerability in a healthy way, this album is not a dynamo. The way I’ve been framing it is: yes, it’s still our John. That voice and that guitar finesse could bring me respite and joy anywhere. But I have no strong desire to listen to the album in contexts other than in the background while I’m doing chores. And again, a caveat: it’s John Mayer, and with his musical talents, I hold him to a ridiculously high standard. The album is, objectively, good.

If I’m being honest, my main beef with “Sob Rock” is that its lyrics have a real “pick me” energy. The bulk of the songs deal with heartbreak in a forlorn, desperate kind of way, as evidenced by the song that’s literally titled, “Why You No Love Me?” I’m not sure who’s broken his heart most recently, but my man is going through it and I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s sending “I could never get a girl like you :/” Snapchats with only half of his face in the picture. Also, stylistically, you can’t tell me that the openings to “New Light” and “Wild Blue” aren’t incredibly close cousins, if not full-on siblings.

A happy realization, though—as I’m re-re-listening to the album to write this piece, I’m actually warming to it. “Shouldn’t Matter but It Does” delivers classic John emotion and gentle guitar (and maracas, I think??). Oh, and he also drops his very first recorded F-bomb in it, which is kind of fun. “Shot in the Dark” has almost a Caribbean vibe, for lack of a more accurate typology, and I’m picturing myself jamming to it at the upcoming concert. Maybe it’s because we’ve known each other for three years, but “New Light”—though it didn’t captivate me during its original 2018 release—feels like an old friend, and even the more lackluster songs on this album deliver us John’s honey-like voice and on-point guitar picking. There is no denying that he knows his craft. While “Sob Rock” is not a home run, I still feel like I’m rooting for my favorite team in their home stadium.

I think my dad summed up my love for John Mayer best. After my mom revealed that she and I would be seeing John live in April, my dad asked if we were “Meeting John for drinks?” afterwards. I wish, Dad. I wish. But in all seriousness, I’ve got to stop fantasizing that John and I are in a relationship and find a real boyfriend reflect on what John Mayer has given me all these years. Incredible music, relatable lyrics, a safe haven and so much more. So whether he and I are going to be Friends, Lovers or Nothing, I’ve got to say thank you, John. Even though you still make me cry about my freaking lunchbox.