“I was so high I did not recognize/the fire burning in her eyes/the chaos that controlled my mind.”
Each of the first four singles from Maroon 5’s debut album absolutely exploded off the radio. The biting edges of “Harder to Breathe,” the cool jazz of “Sunday Morning,” the funky drive of “This Love” and the inescapable charm of “She Will Be Loved.” Songs About Jane as a whole is an incredible album that has endured.
Listening to the first two singles from their upcoming Red Pill Blues made me wonder what the hell I was hearing. Other than Levine’s heavily processed voice it sounds nothing like the band that largely soundtracked my junior high and high school years. And not in a positive, evolutionary way either. Even Purple Rain and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band can be traced back to its makers’ origins.
Rather than leave it at “this sucks,” I decided to attempt to connect those dots. How did Maroon 5 get here? And why?
“Sometimes these cuts are so much deeper than they seem/You’d rather cover up, I’d rather let them bleed.”
Following the huge success of their first two albums Maroon 5 went to Switzerland to record with legendary producer “Mutt” Lange (of AC/DC and Shania Twain fame). The resulting album Hands All Over was debuted at #2 on Billboard and lead single “Misery” charted as high as #14. But it sold 142,000 copies which was comparatively weaker than its predecessor, It Won’t Be Soon Before Long. Critical response was lukewarm; Rolling Stone’s review called the album “too meticulous,” “too uptight” and “not half as fun as it should be.” Third single “Never Gonna Leave This Bed” was a big Adult Contemporary hit, which, while not bad, is hardly a desirable achievement for band of 20 somethings coming off a Grammy award. Guitarist James Valentine expressed “frustration” at how the album had fared.
During this period of what seemed to be a crossroads for the band, Adam Levine signed on as a Judge on “The Voice.” The show was (and still is) a big success, carried largely on the personality of its 4 celebrity coaches. It turned Levine from that guy in skinny jeans who fronts Maroon 5 to a household name and bonafide sex symbol. In the semi-final show of Season 1 Maroon 5 (along with fellow “Voice” coach Christina Aguilera) debuted a new collaboration, “Moves Like Jagger.” It marked a radical departure for the band – not only was it stylistically much more slick and simplified than their earlier work, it was also the first time EVER someone outside of the band had a hand in the writing of a Maroon 5 song. Buoyed by the show, the song hit number 1 and just like that Levine & company were back to being relevant on the pop charts.
I loved “Moves Like Jagger” and like most of my friends played it to death that summer. But given that it was a stand alone single, I figured the production and the fact that it excluded other very formidable writers in the band was a one time deal.
“I’m at a payphone/ trying to call home/all of my change I spent on you.”
I laughed out loud the first time I heard that line. Singing about a “Payphone” as a hook would’ve been great in 1995 but in 2012 it was like hearing someone sing about about Blockbuster late fees. I didn’t hate the song but it was formulaic and flat. When Overexposed was released a few months later and it sounded like 45 minutes of trying to re-create “Moves Like Jagger” I was so disappointed. Even though the singles like “One More Night” and “Daylight” ended up growing on me, I never stopped hating the glossed production and the fact that barely anything on the tracks sounded like actual instruments.
“Sugar/Yes please/Won’t you come and pour it down on me?”
Disappointed as I was with Overexposed, I hadn’t lost my faith in the band. Jesse Carmichael, who co-wrote “This Love,” “Sunday Morning,” “Misery,” and others from the pre-“Jagger” era was coming back for the follow up album (he went on hiatus) and all would be right in the Maroon 5 universe. But V ended up only sounding even more processed and fake. While there were redeemable songs on Overexposed, the best V had to offer was “Sugar,” with its recycled Def Leppard chorus. Now the production AND the songs themselves were weak. And that’s not even including “This Summer’s Gonna Hurt Like a Motherf***er,” the abysmal attempt at a summer single that came shortly after.
I saw Maroon 5 on the Hands All Over tour at a large-but-not-enormous amphitheater in Rochester, NY. The band was tight, playful, and engaged. By the time I saw them in an arena on the V tour they were robotic and barely a live entity at all. The worst was seeing Carmichael, who’s tasteful piano playing during the Hands All Over tour show was a highlight, reduced to being up on a platform playing borderline inaudible rhythm guitar.
“Say say say now hey hey baby/Oh mama don’t play now baby.”
So what happened musically? It’s not as if every Maroon 5 song pre-“Jagger” was “This Love,” with a super jazz-influenced chord progression and lots of harmonic movement. It’s not as if every song had poetic, tattoo-able lyrics like “It’s not always rainbow and butterflies, it’s compromise that moves us along.” The reality is that this band’s musical existence now revolves around providing a table setting for Levine as the frontman and vocal acrobat. It’s not surprising when considering Levine is now the only band member with a hand in the actual composition of the songs. The effects of his post-“Voice” celebrity cannot be overstated.
Adam Levine has only barely veiled that his motivations are commercial. In an interview with Ryan Seacrest he said “if you want to be a songwriter for a long time, you have to adapt.” That speaks directly to what’s come from this band over the past 5 years: trend chasing in the name of staying relevant. They jumped on the calypso beat bandwagon with “Don’t Wanna Know” and the ethereal trance one with “Cold.” Try to imagine a countermelody of any kind on either of those songs. There’s no room for anything else.
What separates good artists from great artists are those that shape trends, not react to them. While there’s nothing wrong with chasing success, if all you are as an artist is emulating what’s trending, pretty soon you have no identity. That’s where I think Maroon 5 has landed. Their sound is derivative of so many different musical genres that it sounds like nothing at all.
“The feeling, it was bittersweet/realizing I was in too deep.”