Thanks to his role as a throne-swiveling talent scout on NBC’s hit singing competition The Voice, Maroon 5 frontman Adam Levine is now a stand-alone star — one who seems awfully pleased to see his every move, from the silly beefs with fellow Voice coach Christina Aguilera to the flings with Victoria’s Secret models, get street-fliered across the media landscape.
Which makes it all too tempting to put him to his own show’s test. What if we could listen to a new Maroon 5 album with our backs turned to the band? If we didn’t know about Levine’s trysts, his Voice image, and the band’s yo-yoing chart history (including 2010’s disappointing Hands All Over and last summer’s smash ”Moves Like Jagger”)? Would we still hear star potential in these boys from Brentwood?
In the case of Overexposed, Maroon 5’s fourth album in 10 years, the answer is mostly no. But not for lack of effort on their part: Inspired, perhaps, by the crossover appeal of ”Jagger,” the group has drafted pop kingpins Max Martin, Benny Blanco, and Ryan Tedder — who regularly deal dope beats to Britney, Katy, Usher, et al. — to thoroughly Top 40-ify their game. So it’s hardly surprising that on much of the album, which never quite finds a balance between rock grit and dance-pop glitz, Maroon 5 barely sound like a band at all. Tracks like ”Love Somebody” and the Coldplay-ish ”Daylight” have choruses so thickly produced that the only physical instrument you can reliably pick out is Levine’s larynx. Not that he comes off as particularly organic either, since his voice is usually processed into a kind of high, disaffected whine — like a male Rihanna or an android castrato — that’s ideal for tracing the contours of a pop hook.
His lyrics don’t help the songs make up much ground. Overexposed‘s self-aware title is just about the strongest wordcraft on the album; its verses alternate between horndog rhapsodies (”I light you up when I get inside,” Levine sings on ”Doin’ Dirt”) and bratty put-downs of some Everygirl who always disappoints, whether she’s ”drown[”ing”] me in questions” (”Fortune Teller”), ”feeling so hollow” (”Love Somebody”), or just being ”such a f—ing snob” (”Tickets”). The exception is first single ”Payphone,” an alchemy of elemental pop-rock building blocks that conjures virile longing in the same corny-graceful way as past M5 hits like ”She Will Be Loved.” Levine’s voice soars, the piano and guitar hit notes of bitter nostalgia, and for once the words’ hurt feels real. And whether by Pro-Tooled magic or old-fashioned sweat, the song also sounds remarkably like it was recorded in a studio by musicians who actually came together to play as a band — even if one of them was only dropping by on his way to the soundstage. C+