For a band that sold more than 4 million copies of its first album, Maroon 5 sure gets called “irritating” a lot. The rep is partly because of singer Adam Levine’s busy, successful pursuit of L.A.'s most visible young blonds, but it’s also because the band deploys its Wild Cherry-flavored dance hits with such sweat-free competence that rooting for them feels superfluous.
At least that 2002 debut has a few raggedy moments; now Maroon 5 has suited up in formal wear and gone in for the kill. “It Won’t Be Soon Before Long,” the band’s sophomore outing (in stores today), is an icy-hot blend of electro-funk and blue-eyed soul that works its cruel streak with the confidence of Daniel Craig’s James Bond.
Even after 50-plus years of mixed-up musical legacies, any white artist who takes on rhythm and blues has to figure out an angle that proves he or she is not just another thief. Being a sexy creep is a good one, turning musical appropriation into just one aspect of a lifestyle that’s all about sophistication and moral compromise. This pose is more sustainable than Jamiroquai’s one-love cheerfulness, which ends up seeming naive, or Justin Timberlake’s chocolate-beneath-the-skin insiderness, which is hard to sustain.
The Daryl Hall of “Maneater” is a sexy creep; so is Roxy Music’s Bryan Ferry, Police-era Sting and, of course, Mick Jagger, as was Michael Hutchence of INXS. Levine finds his own way into this role by doing away with the treacly tendencies that marred Maroon 5’s earlier work and reveling in the seamy, bitter, obsessive side of romance.
He’s taken his band with him down this coolly lit corridor. On aggravatingly danceable tracks such as “A Little of Your Time” and the single “Makes Me Wonder,” guitarist James Valentine and bassist Mickey Madden reinvestigate the moment when New Wave rock got the funk, spewing out lines that mix the former’s edgy concision with the latter’s joint-popping rhythmic genius. New drummer Matt Flynn keeps everything crisp and organized, and keyboardist Jesse Carmichael has a grin playing Trivial Pursuit with Prince and Michael Jackson lifts.
“Can’t Stop” might be the best Michael Jackson simulacrum ever, not only because it emulates the fallen master’s fetishes — rock guitar, hyper-tense rhythms, little melodic flourishes that simulate loss of control — but because the lyric, about the physical experience of sexual thrall, careens into the kind of self-exposure that made “Billie Jean” and “In the Closet” fascinating. “Kiwi” is derivative of Prince, but one can’t help wondering if the title is an homage to Hutchence, because it has that predatory feel that made the Australian singer a top-notch nightcrawler.
Of course, there are ballads, also catchy but even more thematically unnerving, because they’re all about the sentimental frisson of breaking up or getting caught doing wrong. (This is where the band gets its Sting on, referencing “Every Breath You Take” repeatedly.)
Will girls swoon to this stuff? Not if they’re wise. But many are not. By mastering musical and emotional ruthlessness, Maroon 5 has made a deal with the devil, and its powers will be hard to resist.
— Ann Powers
Albums are reviewed on a scale of four stars (excellent), three stars (good), two star (fair) and one star (poor).