by JANICE LEVENS
Red Pill Blues
Adam Levine, Jesse Carmichael, James Valentine, Sam Farrar, Mickey Madden, Matt Flynn, PJ Morton
producers Jason Evigan, John Ryan and Noah Passavoy
November 3rd on 222 and Interscope Records
Now that they are Maroon 7, you might imagine that this band’s new album would be less of The Adam Levine Show. But this is not correct, since Maroon 5 is convinced (perhaps justly so) that the source of their success is Levine’s supreme voice. On Red Pill Blues, Levine makes a habit of abandoning his trademark falsetto in favor of showing his complete range. His fantastic vocals frequently carried the backing instrumentation, and nothing has really changed in that respect on this new album.
Lyrically, Red Pill Blues is more mediocre than bad, but boy is it condescending. On “Denim Jacket” Levine announces
Someone else is taking you home, yeah
Hands on the waist, I used to hold
And I know it’s my fault
I’m late to the dance
‘Cause you couldn’t wait for me and I understand
Things don’t get better when Levine duets with the generic Julia Michaels on the Diplo-produced “Help Me Out.” The track is meant to divorce itself from the sonic landscape Maroon 5 typically impose on their listening audience, but it just comes across as awkward and dated when Michaels’ huskier and darker voice intones, “I need some uncomplicating.” It is difficult to parse exactly what she means by this, or if she’s referring to Gwyneth or what. The sexist undertones practically pulsate. Perhaps sensing that this collaboration with another white artist was a mistake, Red Pill Blues features a number of extremely brief guest shots with African-American artists, including SZA and A$AP Rocky.
On “Who I Am”, Levine weirdly serenades Miami rapper LunchMoney Lewis, who sounds maybe four decades younger than Levine. Levine crowds Lewis out of the track, which concerns itself with how he enjoys being dominated by women until it goes too far. It’s hard to understand where this thematic work really fits within Levine’s experience, but since the song barely lasts three minutes, it’s sort of suggested no one involved with this garbage knows either. As on tracks like the lazy jam “Visions” or “Whiskey”, where Levine sounds like he is an entire Earth away from Rocky, the sparser instrumentation pretty much buries any chance backing vocals or instrumentation had to accentuate or otherwise improve the mediocre songwriting.
Also, perhaps I am simply naive, but how can something simply be like “whiskey”? That is not so much a metaphor as a word. (The song seems disturbingly engineered to be used in a liquor advertisement.) It is best to avoid such subtle incriminations in any artistic endeavor. In order to deflect from this pandering type of self-incrimination, Levine retreats to his most developed emotion — his anger at women from his past who contact him now that he is married to South African model Behati Prinsloo.
On “Closure”, he completely abdicates responsibility for his past actions. “How did we end up in this situation?” Levine groans, “Guess it went exactly as you planned: I always give in to your manipulation.” While such indictments of exes seem to us, in this time, as excessively condescending, we may be underestimating how deeply women fall in love with Adam Levine. Sex with Adam Levine is like perching on the finest toilet imaginable, so much so that “Closure” drones on for a full twelve minutes with jazz soloing meant to make us forget the miserable lyrics. At some point, you just hope it comes out.
Red Pill Blues does have highlights, moments that make you wish Levine had written the entire album with the eminently consistent Pakistani-American songwriter Ammar Malik, his co-writer on the classic pop song “Payphone”. “Wait” nearly reaches those heights, with Levine singing about somewhat darker themes vaguely outside of his own experience (“Wasn’t trying to get wasted, I needed more than three or four to say this”). A ballad co-written with Charlie Puth and Julia Michaels, “Lips on You”, is similarly catchy, but as nutritionally empty as a soft-drink. Someone has to show Levine what a metaphor is.
Janice Levens is the music editor of This Recording.