Let’s be real: Maroon 5 is Adam Levine. Sure, the rest of the quintet — especially keyboardist Jesse Carmichael, who recently returned to the group after a two-year sabbatical — matter within the band, but Maroon 5 live and die by Levine’s unique charisma.
As a frontman, he’s as dynamic and engaging as anybody on rock’s main stage right now, and his four-year run as a coach on The Voice has done wonders to de-douchify his persona. But it’s much easier to win people over when they can see you; audio alone is a whole different medium. And on V, Levine’s song-crafting skills don’t live up to his ability to work a crowd.
This is the first Maroon 5 album on which Levine is also the only member of the group credited as a songwriter. (On their 2002 debut, Songs About Jane, still easily the band’s best record, nearly every track was a tag-team effort between him and Carmichael.) Here, they’ve brought in a parade of Hot 100 production titans, including Ryan Tedder, Benny Blanco, and Shellback, to turn Levine’s melodic sketches and reedy tenor into full songs. Despite its pop pedigree, V’s hooks are alarmingly unsticky.
The first two tracks, singles ”Maps” and ”Animals,” set the stage for what follows: shruggy backbeats and unobtrusive guitar-and-key combos, all in service to Levine’s elastic, singsongy upper register. The uptempo numbers can’t seem to locate the solidifying agents of past hits like ”One More Night” and ”Moves Like Jagger”; where those songs were ultrapolished juggernauts, these sound like remixes abandoned mid-twiddle. Things get mildly better when the band slows down for the Bruno Mars-ian soul jam ”Sugar” and the middle-school-dance power ballad ”Unkiss Me,” but even those feel simultaneously empty and cluttered.
The best moment on V is undoubtedly the album-closing ”My Heart Is Open,” a piano-fueled duet with Gwen Stefani (who also happens to be Levine’s Voice costar in the upcoming seventh season). The song soars on the back of a lush, Sia-penned melody, recalling last year’s equally epic Pink/Nate Ruess matchup, ”Just Give Me a Reason.” It’s a simple, passionate pop pleasure — the kind Maroon 5 used to make. C