Tuesday, September 2, 2014

album review: 'v' by maroon 5

I'm amazed this album exists.

Because if you had told me a decade ago that one of the few pop rock acts still charting singles highly on the Billboard Hot 100 would be Maroon 5, I probably would have laughed in your face. And it wasn't as if they were originally a bad band: their brand of funk was aggressively stiff but they could write some impressively catchy songs. I might not have been the biggest fan of Adam Levine's vocal delivery as he occasionally came across as more obnoxious and smarmy than he could really back up, but his voice was unique and he did have some versatility as a performer. And as much as many of Maroon 5's relationship songs screamed of douchebaggery and framing that was nowhere near self-aware enough to pull it off, they occasionally brought some swagger or even real sincerity to anchor their better material. 

But as the 2000s became the 2010s, it became clear that Maroon 5 was becoming less of a rock band in any capacity and more of a vehicle for Adam Levine's solo career, one that was supported by an arsenal of professional songwriters. In other words, they sold out, which honestly wouldn't have been a problem for a pop act if the music had stayed strong or at least maintained some vestige of individuality. And that really didn't happen, culminating in the album Overexposed in 2012, a record that has only gotten worse every time I listen to it. It was a record that somehow stripped away even more of Maroon 5's unique sound with even worse lyrics. It was a sour, bitter, unpleasant listen with the exception of the gentle and heartfelt piano ballad 'Sad', and it left me with little hope the band would ever recover any artistic integrity, especially considering the record sold shockingly well, so why would they have any reason to try?

And even with the return of keyboardist Jesse Carmichael from hiatus, I didn't have high hopes at all for their new album V, and I was not looking forward to covering this album. But then again, this meant Maroon 5 had nowhere to go but up, at least in my books, so I gave the album a chance: how did it go?

Ugh, I'm honestly tempted to say that this record is just as bad as Overexposed and just as deserving of no attention whatsoever... but honestly, I do think V is a bit better, or at least more consistent. But note that when I say 'better', I mean that it's less offensively grating and obnoxious - there are less elements that make it worth getting angry about. But that's almost worse from a reviewer's perspective, because instead of a bad album that I get riled up about, I have a record that's squatting firmly in mediocre territory that's more aggressively bland than outright awful. Some have called this album a Maroon 5 album of filler, and I would only slightly disagree: this is an Adam Levine album of filler, because Maroon 5 on this record are barely more than a backing studio act.

Because let's make this clear, you can't say that Maroon 5 are a rock band anymore, especially not on this record. Don't let the reggae-inspired guitars floating mid-way to the back of 'Maps' fool you - this is a modern pop record, plain and simple, with all of the hallmarks of that sound that are good and bad. The percussion has some texture and variety, and it's placed right at the front of the mix in front of any melodies, which are usually confined to the thin, inert guitar tones and left at the back of the mix. To this album's credit, the vocal production at least has some depth and has done a lot to make Adam Levine's voice stand out, and the better songs on this record do emphasize some decent synth lines that recall a lot of mid-to-late 80s synthpop that reminds me of post-Invisible Touch Genesis and Phil Collins, or maybe the lightest of Depeche Mode songs, which isn't a bad thing. And of course there are flourishes of early-80s disco on songs like 'Sugar' or 'Feelings', but the riffs often feel really shrill and lodged right at the top of the mix so they have little to no depth. In fact, if we're looking for a problem all around instrumentally, it's the instrumental tonal choice - namely because the synths and guitars feel so flaccid and devoid of driving energy or texture, with the crescendos never building to any sort of punch. 'Maps' is a prime example of this with its prechorus before trying to explode into its breezy chorus, but it contains no real impact. And part of this is an issue with tempo: with few exceptions, this record rarely develops a tightness or speed to really give the songs a pulse, with 'Unkiss Me' being the most egregious example, and with the poor tonal choices and lack of melodic focus, songs really start running together for me. 

Granted, Adam Levine doesn't exactly help matters. I've said in the past that I'm not really a huge fan of his voice, but I will agree that in certain ranges he can show a lot of sincerity that makes his love songs at least come across as earnest. And to this album's credit, there are a fair few more songs that fall along this line than Overexposed, and even moments when the production does showcase more texture and flavour to Levine's voice, like on the album's best song 'It Was Always You'. But it's that song that also highlights why the addition of pitch correction and vocal effects can be so damn irritating with Adam Levine's voice in terms of the mix balance as a whole. To put it as simple as I can, Adam Levine has a very strident voice you'll always hear in the mix within a specific range, but that range is narrow. Whenever the production gently tries to expand that range, give his voice a little more room to breathe, it can work, but whenever the production tries to force it or narrow the range by using pitch correction, it comes across as forced and really unbalanced. That's why the pitch correction on 'Animals' and 'New Love' or the multi-tracking on 'Sugar' or whatever the hell is going on in 'Feelings' is so painfully grating to me - Adam Levine has the pipes to mostly hit those notes, but all the added effects and production make it sound painfully processed and forced.

But as I've mentioned in the past, my biggest issues with Maroon 5 have always been lyrical... and you know, there's been a slight improvement here, at least in subject matter. The biggest issue with Overexposed was obnoxiousness, and thankfully Maroon 5 has tamped that back with V in favour of songwriting that's a lot more straightforward, mostly courtesy over twenty-five additional contributing songwriters, which led to a lot of Maroon 5's rougher edges getting sanded off. On the one hand, that's not exactly bad, as it leads songs like 'Maps' or the breakup tracks 'Unkiss Me', and 'Leaving California' as a lot more benign and inoffensive. That's not saying that Maroon 5 can't leap into that territory with songs like 'Feelings', your standard stealing-other-guy's-girlfriend song, or 'In Your Pocket', a mean-spirited and contemptible song demanding a girl show her phone and prove to him she's not cheating with every manipulative line in the book, with the song framed to show Adam Levine clearly did nothing wrong. But in comparison to previous works, songs this gratuitously douchey tend to be minimized.

But here's my issue with the songwriting: with the big influx of new songwriters, any scrap of unique personality Maroon 5 could have brought to the songwriting feels scraped away. In fact, the songwriting only starts to stand out when it starts showing problems, like on 'Animals' where the girl plainly does not want to be in the relationship and yet Adam Levine is set on hunting her down with uncomfortable intensity. Or take 'New Love', where Levine seems to be wanting that connection with the girl in question and yet leads off his chorus asking for his girl to forgive him right away for inevitably screwing up - because that's the message every woman wants to hear at the start of a possible relationship, that dude's a keeper! But really, the bigger issue is that none of these songs, even by pop standards, bring many new lyrical ideas to the table or present situations we haven't seen a dozen times or more. And I'm not saying that inherently is bad - I like 'Unkiss Me' and 'It Was Always You' is probably the best song on the record, but at the same time it's a song that bites from the template of 'The Search Is Over' by Survivor, a song that really is so much more melodic and interesting that anything Maroon 5 has released over the last two records.

Look, in the end, I can't recommend this record, especially if you liked their earlier rock sound and were put off by Overexposed. At this point, Maroon 5 is barely a band, more of a solo vehicle for Adam Levine to put out new singles that feel more and more tired with every release. This might not be their worst or offensive album, but it's their most soulless, both in instrumentation and lyrics. 4/10, no recommendation, and maybe, just maybe, Adam Levine might feel that bolt of inspiration. But I'm seeing a trend here, so honestly, I doubt it.

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