Review by Kelly O
1. “Maps” (3:10)
2. “Animals” (3:51)
3. “It Was Always You” (4:00)
4. “Unkiss Me” (3:58)
5. “Sugar” (3:55)
6. “Leaving California” (3:23)
7. “In Your Pocket” (3:39)
8. “New Love” (3:16)
9. “Coming Back for You” (3:47)
10. “Feelings” (3:14)
11. “My Heart is Open” (ft. Gwen Stefani) (3:57)
It’s a bad time to be someone who dislikes Maroon 5. The pop group is seemingly inescapable, or at least frontman Adam Levine is. Levine has seen his profile skyrocket since he became a coach on The Voice, a gig he’s maintained for six seasons (with a seventh premiering later this month). The job has not only resulted in acting appearances and People’s infamous “Sexiest Man Alive” label, but also increased success for Maroon 5. The group, which took its pop-rock sound decidedly in a more chart-friendly direction over the last couple of albums, rode that wave of momentum to a major-league hit album in 2012’s Overexposed. However, while commercially it was a bounce back from the relative disappointment of Hands All Over, critically it was a mixed bag that sacrificed an engaging and interesting sound for catchy-yet-unmemorable moments and a bit too much digital manipulation of Levine’s voice.
Two years later, the group finds themselves largely sticking to what made them money in V, but with some significant changes that make their fifth album a better effort than the last one. The group has kept many of the producers that made Overexposed so slick (Max Martin, Noel Zancanella, Benny Blanco, Ryan Tedder, Levine and Shellback) while adding the likes of Rodney Jerkins and Andre Lindal to the lineup. It’s just enough to vary up their sound and provide a little complexity amidst the candy-coated pop hooks and the result is some definite improvement, such as opening track “Maps.” The Police influences are strong and obvious on this one, with Valentine’s light guitar licks underneath Levine’s layered vocals during the chorus. Of course it opens up to a more expansive, dance pop-influenced swell in the chorus but it all melds together well to create something more interesting than most of what the band gave us the last time around.
“Maps” is also the first single off of the LP as well as the opening track, and likewise the second and third songs made the second and third singles. “Animals” is a bit of a step down, a pop hook with rather creepy, stalkeresque lyrics about a problematic relationship. “You can start over, you can run free/you can pretend it’s meant to be,” Levine sings, “but you can’t stay away from me.” Add in the line “Maybe you think that you can hide/I can smell your scent for miles,” and you have to wonder if this one is inspired by a restraining order. But the darkness of the song appears intentional and Shellback’s production makes it memorable in the right way. “It Was Always You” is a pop song in the best way; the slow build of the music plays nicely and the lyrics are definitely a step up from the predator metaphor in “Animals.”
Once we get out of current single territory, the album opens up a bit and lets itself breathe. “Unkiss Me” is a ballad that sees Levine’s voice shine through, his high register adding emphasis at the right points instead of being the main attraction although the “un” lyrics are just a little bit awkward. “Sugar” sounds like the kind of song that will see eventual single release–no surprise, with hitmaker Dr. Luke involved. That Luke produced Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream” isn’t surprising, as the two songs have a strong relation to each other. Refreshingly though, it diverges just enough; Luke’s sound hearkens back to the more pop/rock-oriented sound of previous albums, but mainlines that for inclusion within the current pop spectrum.
There are a couple of late highlights on the album, namely “In Your Pocket” and “My Heart Is Open.” “Pocket” is another one that shows a hint of pop/rock influence and it also has some of the better lyrics on the album, a tale of two lovers who don’t trust each other that plays out nicely throughout the song. Shellback is back for this one with a little help and he makes good use of Matt Flynn’s staccato drums. “My Heart Is Open” is the latest collaboration between Voice coaches, this one between Levine and new coach Gwen Stefani. In many situations this can come across as nothing more than a pure promotional ploy, and that’s certainly part of it. But this album closer also happens to be a wonderful vocal experience from both Levine and Stefani, remarkably untouched by any effects. Pop’s own Midas of 2014, Sia Furler, co-wrote this one and you can hear it in the structure and lyrics in a good way. It’s a slow ballad duet that plays as strong as any Voice collaboration since Maroon 5 and Christina teamed up for “Moves Like Jagger.”
Between those two are a bit of album sagging, though. “New Love” is an unremarkable song, the kind that is destined to be an album-only track that appeals to hardcore fans of the band. Levine’s vocals are too buried in AutoTune–an unnecessary choice by Tedder and Zancanella that largely dooms the song. And “Coming Back For You” is just flat-out unmemorable, the kind of midtempo transitional song that could have easily been cut to make for a tighter and more cohesive album.