Tuesday, July 10, 2012

album review: 'overexposed' by maroon 5

Short version: an album that's bitter, detached, and genuinely unpleasant to listen to. Worse still, the entire exercise comes across as completely insincere when in comparison with the one truly genuine song on the album. Top it off with a real loss of unique sound and some horrible lyrical choices, and you have a real mess of an album from a band who is capable of so much better.

Longer version...

It's always interesting to take a step back away from the typical pop music scene and consider the genres that influence it at various points. At points, rock music has been dominant, at others R&B or hip-hop or rap. At some points, there have even been influences from the indie scene or the country scene, particularly recently. 

But what becomes more interesting that even that are the acts that influence the music scene and the pop acts. These are the bands that push the boundaries, try something new, experiment with concepts or production techniques or interesting sounds. Sure, the experiments sometimes fail, but the attempt can be important as well, as it could be worthy of analysis to try and figure out why things didn't work out.

And today I'm going to talk about Maroon 5 - a band that once had a unique sound and looked to influence pop music, and then completely sold out and lost it. I can't say I'm all that surprised or all that disappointed.

It's interesting talking about Maroon 5, because as a band, they're a real oddity. They've been plenty successful, with several hit singles across the pop charts, and they've always gotten a lot of airplay, but they have never seemed like an A-List pop act to me. Their biggest successes came in 2007-2008 with singles off It Won't Be Soon Before Long (okay, I'll admit it, that's a clever title), but in those years, pop-rock music was at a creative peak. Flush with My Chemical Romance, Fall Out Boy, Billy Talent, Panic! At The Disco, Linkin Park, and Jimmy Eat World, Maroon 5 didn't fit in with the brand, and probably would have gotten crowded out on pop-rock radio. And besides, I've always considered Maroon 5 a pop act - the band always feels too polished and insubstantial compared to true meaty rock music.

But even as a pop act, what defines Maroon 5? They do have a unique sound that they attribute to funk inspirations, but I don't buy that. Funk music is loose and soulful and energetic - and soulful is definitely not an adjective I'd use to describe Maroon 5 in the slightest. All the beats and instrumentation on Maroon 5 tracks are tightly controlled and restrained, and lead singer Adam Levine doesn't have enough of an edge or any swagger to give any of his lyrics a truly funky feel.

I'll come back to the lyrics in a bit, but Adam Levine himself as a performer raises a lot of questions. It's clear that he enjoys the spotlight and likes being the center of attention, but having watched a bit of The Voice, he doesn't come across as a bad person. If anything, despite his attempts at macho swagger, I've always considered him a bit of a dweeb. He's not particularly charming, but he's not worthy of hate in the same vein I reserve for Chris Brown. Unfortunately, outside of his unique singing voice (which seems a cross between a falsetto and tenor, and delivered entirely through the top of his head voice), the guy doesn't seem to have much personality other than be just as stiff as his music. It also doesn't help that whenever he tries to bring ego into his performance, he really comes across as a smug douche with an infinitely punchable face. His best songs are easily the ones where he sounds vulnerable, because it pulls him out of the stiff jackass  routine and into something remotely human. I actually liked 'Stereo Hearts' by the Gym Class Heroes more than I expected to because for once, Adam Levine sounded sincere and almost likeable.

Unfortunately, there is one big problem that shoves a steak knife straight into Maroon 5's unique style: their lyrics, while not clumsily written, are often so smug and catty and genuinely douchey that it makes the band borderline unlistenable to me. Of particular interest (at least to me) is how Maroon 5 uses profanity - namely that instead of using it as punctuation or to strike a hard point, Maroon 5 writes it fluidly into the song, and the lyrics sometimes become extremely jarring. But really, so many of Maroon 5's songs are so bitter and smug and are delivered with such clinical insensitivity that you really come to view the band, and Adam Levine in particular, as extremely unlikeable. It also doesn't help matters that so many of the songs are break-up songs or songs about bad relationships in some vein, and worse yet, Adam Levine delivers the majority of the songs with the slick, cold disaffection of a corporate lawyer. Their music sounds harshly cynical and pretty unpleasant if you listen to the lyrics closely. 

It got to the point for me that there was only three things that made Maroon 5 catch any notice from me: the faux-funk sound, the horrible lyrics, and Adam Levine's caterwhauling. And now with their newest album Overexposed, we can mostly cross the first article off the list. 

With this album, you cannot in good conscience call Maroon 5 a 'rock' act in any way (which disappoints me, considering the woeful absence of rock music on pop radio), and I'm a little hardpressed to pin down what sound they're trying to emulate or utilize. Considering that Adam Levine hired on Max Martin and a group of other pop songwriters, I'm assuming he's looking to try a new pop sound, but that really strikes me as a misstep for a band that desperately needs more originality. Instead of the attempts at funk, it appears the band has mostly abandoned that genre for the same electronic beats you'd normally find behind a Katy Perry track. The one attempt to hold onto a funk sound is the second single 'One More Night', which isn't terrible, but it still sounds way too stiff and sluggish to really stick with me.

But while the production merely irks me, the real problem with this album is the lyrics and the delivery. This was a problem I spotted as early as the debut of the first single, 'Payphone', which takes a so-so beat and marries it to godawful lyrics and an absolutely horrible guest verse from Wiz Khalifa, and unfortunately it occurs everywhere on this album. Simply put, Adam Levine's voice (with the unwelcome assistance of auto-tune, and it always irks me when people who don't need it use it) doesn't have that raw human presence that would give him a sympethic presence - particularly when the lyrics are so bitter and spiteful towards any object of affection. 

Take 'Payphone', for instance. On the surface, it seems to be the song of a guy pining after a girl who left him (or was it mutual, it's unclear) for reasons that they just became two different people. Alright, that's a fine conceit for a song. But then you reach the verses, where Adam Levine scathingly places all of the blame on the girl, and then on the second part of the chorus, where he's so bitter and angry that the very presence of a love song renders him inconsolably furious. But it's very clear from the first half of the chorus and the bridge to the chorus that he's not at all over the girl who apparently left him, and then you get Wiz Khalifa coming in with a verse that's just as bitter and also downright awful - this guy's flow is so muddled and haphazard, it's a shame people think he's the next big thing. What I'm ultimately saying is that I don't mind complexity in pop songs, but there are so many conflicting messages here that I can't empathize with the singer in the slightest. Like I wanted to say to Gotye on 'Somebody That I Used To Know', get over yourself and move on. 

And the problem is that this is the sort of tenor for the rest of the album - songs that either break-up (or would-be break-up) melodies loaded with bitterness and incoherence ('One More Night', 'The Man Who Never Lied', 'Fortune Teller', 'Beautiful Goodbye'), hook-up songs about how Adam Levine attempts to romanticize the one-night stand ('Daylight', 'Lucky Strike', 'Ladykiller', and spoilers, it really doesn't work), and 'love' songs that just come across as completely insincere ('Love Somebody', 'Tickets', 'Doin Dirt'). It really becomes a chore to listen to the album simply because of how unpleasant it is.

And here's the biggest problem - about midway through the album, there's a change of pace with a soft piano ballad called 'Sad'. And much to my shock, it's easily the best song on the album, because not only does Adam Levine sound sincere and genuinely regretful, but he sounds human. The conceit of the song is that he's worried he'll never find another girl like the one he lost, and he's scared about it. It's a heartbreakingly sad song that really resonated with me, and it's easily the one shining light on the album. 

But the problem then becomes the question: 'Sad' worked as well as it did because it made Adam Levine sound sincere and honest, and he sells those emotions so much better than the abject douchebaggery he provides for the rest of the album. He sounds far more emotionally invested in songs like this, which really makes me wonder why Maroon 5 didn't play upon the more human side of Adam Levine for the rest of the album. As I mentioned before, I don't think Adam Levine is a bad person, and the emotion he delivers in a song like this is real - which makes his detached delivery on all the rest of the songs understandable. He's not invested in them, so he doesn't sing them with anything real. 

But that comes down to the crux of the argument - namely that all of the angry bitter songs that Maroon 5 makes don't have an emotional core to them, and thus come across as shallow and really insufferable, but that melodies like 'Sad' have real gravitas to them shows the band has potential to make genuinely moving songs. So here's the next question:why the fuck aren't they doing that? I'm fairly certain the band is aware they have this potential, but the disaffected veneer of detachment and the horribly bitter lyrics make the band really come across like pricks.

And that's a real shame, because, as I said, Maroon 5 is probably capable of making, if not good music, at least something interesting. But I don't find harsh, grating spite compelling, particularly when it's shallower than toilet water.Overexposed isn't just bad because the songs are grating and bitter and unpleasant to listen to (although that doesn't help), but because it's such an insincere and dishonest album. Of course, it doesn't help they seemed to surrender their instrumental style and personality to the influx of new songwriters and producers, and that their lyrics still remain laced with unnecessary profanity, which Adam Levine doesn't have the presence to have it make any impact. 

Hell, from where I'm sitting, I think that Adam Levine and his band would sound a hell of a lot better if they just wrote silly love songs. And really, what's wrong with that?

Up next: I tackle the last in our trifecta of terrible tunes with The Offspring and their album. If anything, that one just makes me sad.


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