Adam Levine’s voice is one of the most benignly ubiquitous sounds in pop. It is air-conditioning, it is tap water, it is a thermostat set to 72 degrees. It’s coming, right now, from behind that potted plant over there. It doesn’t even belong to Levine’s throat alone—it is a sine wave that has also been loaned out to Akon, to Bruno Mars, to Nico & Vinz. It’s a voice that can sound vaguely like the Police, vaguely like Hall & Oates, or vaguely a young Michael Jackson. On 2012’s “One More Night,” it sounded vaguely like Rihanna. Forget his role as actual judge of singers—his voice has been its own franchise for years, rebooting itself year after year.
The fact that there is a band behind Levine, with lineup largely intact and original members miraculously unfired is a fact that seems to surprise even the band’s fans (they call themselves “Marooners.”) Here’s a fun test: Google “Maroon 5 members” and behold just how many results focus on the fact that yes, the band does have other members. It’s hard to blame these poor Marooners. Pulling my headphones off in the coffee shop where I was listening to this album, I discovered the same Maroon 5 single playing quietly over the system that I had just finished listening to. They are a piece of our built environment, and caring about them seems like a strange philosophical test: Can you care about bathwater or halogen lamps? Do you know that Maroon 5 has recorded five previous studio albums?
They have! Their sixth, Red Pill Blues, generated a groundswell of online response insofar as people wondered if the members knew that “the red pill” is a toxic term inextricably linked to the alt-right (turns out: No, they did not know this.) The band (for the record: Levine, along with Jesse Carmichael on keys and rhythm guitars; Mickey Madden on bass; James Valentine on lead and rhythm guitar; Matt Flynn on drums; and then PJ Morton and Sam Farrar on assorted other keys, MPCs, and filigree) have always had a shrewd and easy touch with soft rock, and opener “Best 4 U” reasserts their dominance here. The keys twinkle with a hint of wry humor; the guitars are there to remind you, distantly, of the existence of guitars, little dots and blobs surrounded by starchy white silence. Levine’s voice murmurs and glints in the corners of the arrangement, and the total effect is exactly as pleasingly immaculate and numbing as all soft rock should be.
The band themselves have always been tight and professional and smooth, and they remain truly excellent at this sound. But this sound alone, regrettably, doesn’t guarantee the kind of chart success that being Maroon 5 dictates. To help scale that mountain, which gets taller every album cycle, they’ve pulled several of One Direction’s songwriters into their orbit. That includes John Ryan, a covert pop operator who has landed co-writing credits on an impressive 27 1D songs and who also loosed Jason DeRulo’s unholy “Wiggle” into the universe. He pops up multiple times on Red Pill Blues, from the spiraling wind-tunnel “whoo-oo-oo” hook of “Wait” to the finger-picked guitar of One Direction dead ringer “Bet My Heart.”
Also pulled into the tractor beam is Starrah, whose onomatopoetic hooks on songs like Jeremih’s “Pass Dat,” Kevin Gates’ “2 Phones,” and Katy Perry’s “Swish Swish” pop up here on “Girls Like You” and “What Lovers Do.” Everything and everyone that pops up on a Maroon 5 album sounds somewhat leached of their essence, though—SZA duets with Levine on “What Lovers Do,” and somehow, that slightly anarchic mischief that enlivens and animates CTRL is gone completely. You wonder what filter they passed her vocal take through to render her so inert.
You also wonder, sadly, the same thing about Kendrick, who wanders through “Don’t Wanna Know” sounding pretty confused about how someone of his immense stature should be spending his cultural capital. A$AP Rocky, on the nonsensically worded ballad “Whiskey” (“I was so young/Till she kissed me, like I’m whiskey”), sounds equally lost, a designer t-shirt left in an Old Navy dressing room. Only Future sounds at home in these antiseptic environs.
It’s this utter lack of libido that ends up making Red Pill Blues so difficult to even finish. Soft rock and sex have a tricky relationship, and so do sex and Hot 100 pop. It’s the ostensible subject, or the ultimate aim, of 99% of the material, but actual, physical copulation is a nasty rumor to most of these songs. On “Lips on You,” Levine offers, in a gentlemanly way, to go down on you; the offer might be sexier if the heart-thump of the drum programming and the new age synth didn’t sound like Sting was servicing you in a Pier 1 Imports store.
The mixing on the album was done by Serban Ghenea, a secret-weapon pop engineer who has mixed hundreds of Hot 100 songs. His songs are distinguished by their naked-smooth surfaces that erase any hint of pumping blood. His work is astonishing, in its way, a series of swooping stainless steel curves that mark out our pop landscape. He’s a perfect partner for Levine, who sounds more appealing the more he transforms himself into a bouncing sound effect. On “Help Me Out,” he rackets around the twinkling synths in his head voice, sounding at least as nimble and half as human as they do. He is the perfect coach for a show simply called “The Voice:” disembodied, inhuman, he dances across the surface like laser light.