Twenty-seven million album sales and multiple Max Martin collaborations into its career, Maroon 5 can no longer accurately be called a rock band, as much as Adam Levine’s increasingly dense skin canvass of tattoos might seem to indicate that the label still applies. As the band has maintained a consistent presence in the global pop market over the past decade, whatever sharp edges it displayed on 2002’s Songs About Jane—the cheeky garage-guitars on “Harder to Breathe”, say—have been sanded down, lacquered over, and decorated with an impressively slick array of flashy sonic embellishments, culminating in the parade of top-ten singles produced by its 2012 effort Overexposed. When a band starts releasing songs via lucrative inclusions in Kia Soul commercials (see: the recent offering “Animals”), it’s fair to identify that behavior as selling out. But if you take Maroon 5 for what it’s become—a meticulously produced pop act with a barely detectable rock pedigree—then it’s worth crediting the band for having spawned a distinctive sub-species of guilty-pleasure earworm, one containing just enough traces of actual instruments to remind listeners that digital synthesizers haven’t completely cannibalized rock ‘n’ roll.
Co-written with four of pop music’s reigning hit-machines, including Benny Blanco and Ryan Tedder, V’s lead single “Maps” epitomizes the formula that has secured Maroon 5 a seemingly ubiquitous presence on the radio. As with the melismatic groove that distinguishes “Moves Like Jagger”, “Maps” optimizes Levine’s remarkably flexible falsetto by adding surprising vocal touches like the melodic uptick on the line “map that leads to you-ou” and the downwardly cascading, vocal-exercise-esque delivery of the verb “following”. Like Tedder’s recent hits with his own band One Republic, the song pivots sharply between verse, pre-chorus, and chorus in such a way as to hold the listener’s attention throughout, not always an easy feat in an era when the “shuffle” command is just a finger-swipe away. The song harnesses Police’s breezy guitar licks as well as Daft Punk’s disco danceability, anchoring those two elements with peppy handclaps and percussion that builds and relieves pressure as the song’s structure switches gears.
Though the band’s marketing team has been pushing “Animals” as V‘s second single, the song stands out as one of the album’s ultra-generic yet conceptually queasy throwaways. Like “In Your Pocket”, in which the singer somewhat creepily commands a girl to hand over her smartphone to him, the song amplifies lyrics that essentially celebrate sexual predation by foregrounding dubstep percussion that hits like a punch in the gut and adding a gleeful wolf howl to the final chorus. With lines like “Baby I’m preying on you tonight / Hunt you down eat you alive,” “Animals” isn’t doing any favors for the crusade against misogyny, but even if you ignore the song’s questionable lyrics, the composition offers little that’s new to the genre of sexually voracious dance-pop.
Maroon 5 hits a far more innovative stride on “Sugar” and “Feelings”, two songs that manage to elegantly hybridize syncopated funk grooves and synth-driven ‘80s nostalgia. In interviews, Levine constantly mentions his adoration for Stevie Wonder, and these two tracks bring him as close as he’ll probably ever get to sounding like his idol. “Sugar” hits a sweet spot by layering a subtly funky guitar pulse over gossamer synths and multiple tracks of Levine’s easy-on-the-ears upper range, while “Feelings” draws on the disco catalogue yet sneaks in transgressive turns-of-phrase such as “You and me let’s go all night / Going so high we fucked the sky / Come with me now fuck that guy.” While “Sugar” and “Feelings” benefit from collaborations with Dr. Luke and Shellback, respectively, fun. lead singer Nate Ruess’s co-writer credit can be felt a bit too ham-handedly on “Leaving California”, which finds Levine’s hyper-earnest delivery sounding exactly like Ruess’s, while lifting melodic passages straight off the sheet music for fun.‘s hit “We Are Young”.
If V doesn’t seem destined to yield the formidable helping of catchy singles that Overexposed did, the album delivers a consistent palette of genre-melding pop offerings and affable fist-pumping anthems, on the whole surpassing the flaccid duo of records released in the wake of Songs About Jane. Leaving scrappier rock behind for the sunny horizons of chart-friendly pop was surely a wise commercial move for Maroon 5, but reaching for ubiquity on the singles chart often means sacrificing any hope of making a conceptually cohesive and musically sophisticated album. As far as lightweight, easy-listening charts pop goes, V doesn’t totally offend the sensibilities, and that’s surely more than can be said about some of Maroon 5’s overly pandering, less exploratory “pop-rock” peers.