Maroon 5 have always been a rock band that injected pop and R&B swagger into their music. Even so, on their first 3 albums, they still managed to cut the right balance of the two, still sounding like a rock band with sprinklings of the other 2 on top for good measure. When album #3 tanked, and then they had a runaway smash with the poppy, Benny Blanco-produced add-on track "Moves Like Jagger" the writing was on the wall. More of the same followed with the messy, half-focused Overexposed, and now, with the aptly titled fifth album "V", one look at the back cover and seeing Max Martin as executive producer (and a host of even more pop svengalis in the liner notes for each song) it's clear they haven't ditched this approach. I was tempted before listening to hope that maybe they had done what I hoped they would do - take the fact that they DO know how to play well live, and on record, and use that talent to push what a typical chart-bomber could be. Mostly, hopes were dashed, and while it's better than Overexposed, it's not all it could be.
"Maps" at least starts off with a more organic sounding groove, and more like a band playing than a few guys at keyboards cooking up thoroughly automated sugar-coated pop. Not that there's anything wrong with keyboard-driven pop, mind you. Just saying that it comes across as disappointing when that isn't exactly what you're expecting - or when you know the band putting it out is capable of doing both that and more organic music just as well. "Animals" is more of what M5 love doing - a track extolling the leering lover on the hunt. A bit well-worn at this point, but sticking with what you know can work. They try to tone the glitz down a bit with "Leaving California", and while it's a pleasant mid-tempo ballad with great ambition, it falls on Levine's voice. Straight up, he can't pull off the aw-shux-you're-leaving-me trope well in this setting - he needs a different backdrop for that. Following shortly after, the borderline creepy "In Your Pocket" sounds like one of the scrapped tracks from Overexposed that should have stayed scrapped. It sounds like a much more radio-friendly version of a rather crude internet-only track from a different artist - one featuring a jilted lover telling her other half "Something's going on, can I smell your...." well, you get the idea. Thankfully, this is a bump on the road, as Levine breaks out his Mariah Carey vocal-histrionics side for "New Love" - another mid-tempo burner which is, subject matter-wise, more his speed. And while "Feelings" is a pleasant enough track, it shows them starting to run out of ideas, as in the chorus it rides a beat and sound that is photocopied straight out of "Moves Like Jagger." Learning and adapting from what has been a hit in the past is one thing. Copy-catting it again down the road to make another song is just lazy work. Gwen Stefani lends a nice hand on the closing duet "My Heart Is Open" which is a nice breather after the overly busy, sometimes over-caffeinated remainder of the album.
Bottom line - Maroon 5 the rock band is dead - or at least on life support, buried under the pop trappings of Dr. Luke, Shellback, Benny Blanco, Ryan Tedder, and more of-the-moment names. And it's understandable - if you find what works and pays the bills, I understand the need to go for it. One would think by now that they don't need to pay the bills that badly, and have the leeway to take chances. Maybe by album 6 they'll finally feel ready to. One can only hope.