The first single of the upcoming album SOB Rock by John Mayer has a bit of a strange pedigree to it. A few months ago the first segment of the song was released to widespread interest among the musical community and some people took a stab at completing the song. To be sure, these people were quite far away from what John Mayer had in mind for the song, but from the snippets at least a few aspects of the completed song were evident. The song has a strong 80’s feel to it, and some have justly compared it to Toto’s Africa and the 80’s music of Eric Clapton, and there are definitely some parallels there with Africa’s chord structure and the general guitar feel of Eric Clapton during those albums of the mid-to-late 80’s, a certain expensive sound with strong keyboards and drumming. It seems fitting that a song about nostalgia would evoke such a specific time and place within the world of music, and this feel appears to be very deliberately done, even to the point of choosing collaborators who helped make that sort of music in the first place with other bands and musicians.
One of the most fascinating aspects of “Last Train Home” for me is its structure, and the way that the song is full of elegant little touches that add elements to what is fundamentally a pretty simple pop rock song. We begin with the intro and the first verse, which were what was released earlier. After this there is a prechorus and a short first chorus. A short reprise of the intro then follows, and the second verse and prehcorus and verse mostly follow the first in terms of their sound only they add little guitar bits to add variety. After the second chorus, we are about two minutes into a three minute song, and we are already done with the main content of the piece, and John Mayer then adds another hook for the bridge that repeats, and then adds Maren Morris singing background vocals and then some solo guitar noodling as the song ends at around the three minute mark. This is an efficient three-minute pop song that does not overstay its welcome and that appears to be destined for 80’s FM radio, only it is now the 2020’s.
It is particularly knowing and telling that a song that is fundamentally about nostalgia should sound so nostalgic. John Mayer is at this point a middle-aged man who has spent the last few years demonstrating that he is not necessarily a very sympathetic character. Over the course of more than a decade now he has lost most of his audience after making some very questionable statements about his taste in women, and his dealings with people such as Jessica Simpson, Taylor Swift, and Katy Perry (at least among those I have known about) has not crowned him with glory. A substantial part of Mayer’s widespread appeal was as a nice guy who would sing songs to women about how their body was a wonderland and how girls became lovers who turn into mothers and other similar sentiments, and finding out that Mayer was somewhat of an SOB did not improve his popularity. There is no denying the man’s talent, and his appreciation of classic blues and rock guitar, but sometimes the man’s character has been weighed in the balance and found wanting.
When I listen to “Last Train Home,” I feel a complex set of emotions about the song and about the man who made it. Being born in the 80’s myself, and a man in middle age who certainly feels it, I understand the pull of nostalgia for an imagined past. John Mayer has long wanted to go home. From early in his career he has sung about his desire for a good home life, his longing for stability in love, and his concern about his still verdictless life. He has sung about his childhood and his desire to overcome the limitations of his own personal and family background and about his feelings that he has loved others with only half of his heart. When I listen to this song I can both relate to the song’s sentiments about longing for love and affection and feeling that one has put one’s heart where it doesn’t belong while also thinking that in the case of Mayer (and perhaps in my own case as well) that a lot of projection is going on. As Mayer thinks about the hurt that lovers past have caused him, it would do well for him to think of the pain and suffering he has inflicted on others. To the extent that we long for a simpler time and for people to love us simply and completely, it is worthwhile for us to examine ourselves and the way that we treat others. To expect devotion from others that we do not feel towards them, to demand from others communication that we cannot provide, to demand trust when we are not trustworthy, are not reasonable demands to make upon others.
For all of the skill and intention that crafted this song, one gets the feeling that the last train home departed a long time ago. There is no going back to the past. Even if it were possible to reverse time in a sense and go back to the way that things were in some way or another, we are not who we were once were. For better or worse, we have been scarred and we have been changed by the experiences we have had in a wicked and fallen and corrupt world, and must deal with the impact of those scars and that corruption on ourselves and on our character. This longing for paradise and for the best of our past is not an ignoble desire, it is merely one that is impossible to fulfill, at least by our own strength and our own wisdom. It is only in going forward as best as we can, seeking to recover the best of what has been lost, preserving the best of what we have, and striving towards the best that has not been achieved, with all the help and assistance that we can get from our Creator and God, that we may return home once again at the end to a place and situation that we have never known but where we truly and finally belong.