“Help me out, ‘cause I don’t wanna do this,” I scream deliriously at the band members of Maroon 5. But I’m not saying these words as the chorus to one of the tracks on the band’s latest album, Red Pill Blues — even though these are the lyrics to (surprise) “Help Me Out.” I am quite literally begging them to end their pop cacophony and listen up for a change.
Listening to Red Pill Blues (named for “The Matrix,” not the men’s rights activist movement, the band promises!) is the equivalent to having sent your parents a list of exactly what you want for your birthday this year — then opening your present to find it’s a hairbrush.
“We just didn’t know what you wanted,” Adam Levine seems to be saying to you as he pushes play on the lyrically vapid album opener “Best 4 U.”
Except, fans told Levine over and over again what they wanted. Nobody was expecting the band to turn around and recreate Songs About Jane, but fans were more than forthcoming with pleas for the band to avoid uninspired pop formulas — Overexposed, after all, demonstrated that if nothing else, Maroon 5 is capable of doing mainstream pop right, if it tries.
Fans have yearned for the trademarks that made the band stand out in the first place: punchy instrumentals that incorporated soul, funk, rock and disco constructions, the full breadth of Adam Levine’s seductive tenor range and amorous, angsty lyricism. All of those things can exist on the pop stage.
In a 2016 interview, guitarist James Valentine suggested at a more “organic, back to a Songs About Jane sort of approach” for Red Pill Blues.
Upon request, I will send you a 22-second mixtape of all the moments that sound “organic” on this album. A three-second guitar riff here, a five-note frisky vocal run there.
While the album has a handful of saving graces (OK, maybe a baby-sized hand), there’s a stupefying amount of disappointment to unpack. The lyricism is pedestrian and monotonous. Adam Levine’s lower register lacks the confidence and intimacy that makes it alluring. Even his falsetto, while as delightful as ever, overstuffs every song. These high notes are meant to be the cherry on top, not the ice cream — they spoil too quickly to be anything of substance.
Most of the numerous collaborations probably should have been scrapped — in particular, LunchMoney Lewis’s verse on “Who I Am” is reminiscent of one you might hear performed during a drunken freestyle rap battle at a college party — off-tempo and sloppy. I may have quite literally dropped the same couplets at such a battle last weekend. I am very bad at rap.
Maroon 5 also takes this opportunity to rub in a painful irony on its near-12-minute track, “Closure.” Rather than incorporating instrumentals into each of the tracks that so desperately need it, the band opted to cram in the shining moments for multi-instrumentalists Sam Farrar and Jesse Carmichael, guitarist James Valentine, bassist Mickey Madden, drummer Matt Flynn and keyboardist PJ Morton into one lengthy elevator music-inspired extended jam.
The irony comes from realizing that the title “Closure” could refer to the death of instrumentalism for the band — longtime fans should move on, it seems to say. And the jam session isn’t even particularly well-executed.
That all being said, the album isn’t completely useless. Though it’s been out for quite some time now, “Don’t Wanna Know” is phenomenal. “Lips on You” and “Girls Like You” both tap into some of that sensual musicality that can be so appealing from the band. “Denim Jacket” is cute in a retro sort of way. There are a few playful choruses and refreshing verses buried in the thicket of unoriginal pop.
And, as is often the case with pop music, the songs become catchier and catchier the more you listen to them. Truthfully, there’s nothing objectively wrong with the formulaic tracks that Red Pill Blues comprises — if you’re looking for an airtight (if not vacuous) pop album, you can find one here.
Really, it likely would not be so disappointing if we were all not so acutely aware that Maroon 5 can do so much better.