Much of pop music, the one that plays repeatedly in clubs and on the radio, has a simple task that’s often difficult to achieve: Be personal, yet vague enough that everyone can feel included in the grooving. There’s a certain respect with which you must treat the listener, to immerse them in a world that’s pleasurable but grounded, glamorous but not far-fetched. Fail to do this, and your radio hit becomes an idolization of money. No album in recent memory better demonstrates this than Maroon 5’s Red Pill Blues, on which Adam Levine and crew explore the depths of egoism. It is a universe as absurd as any of Dr. Seuss’, in which relationships are understood solely through alcohol and jackets, where life consists of coked-out parties and hookups. Any semblance of an authentic experience is muddled in the wishy-washy character of the least daring or confessional music possible.
There was a time when Maroon 5 used instruments in their recording. One thinks of 2000s pop hits like “Misery” and “She Will Be Loved” and wonders what ever happened to the pluck-slap of an old-fashioned guitar. Any trace of a band member outside of Levine is erased in the fell swoop of a synthesizer, casting a pallor of deathly blandness over any tune that sounds remotely catchy. Unfortunately, the lines that get stuck in your head are repeated mercilessly to the point of obnoxiousness. Song development is substituted with a cheap overlay of instruments that confuse rather than embellish the music. The one point we’re reminded that the studio houses more than just Levine and his producer is the track “Closure,” which includes an unnecessary eight-minute instrumental that seeks to retcon any previous assumption that the album was lacking an authentic rock identity. But the Fusion-styled piano riffs and sax-howls are even more uninspiring than their pop counterparts, adding only to the track’s length rather than any sense of musical direction.
The world in which Red Pill Blues is situated is also extremely questionable. The first track, “Best 4 U,” whose title is formatted like an embarrassing text message, details the rut Levine is stuck in: “Yeah another night out, I get drunk I get high, Then you call and I lie.” But Levine’s apologies are more like excuses conveying a narcissistic self-awareness of his foibles. We’re meant to laugh at the silliness of emotional engagement, blurring the line between actual obligations and the Hollywood fantasy that is an escape from them. On “Bet My Heart,” Levine illustrates the evidence of his affections in terms of betting: “My time, my attention, my patience, I’m giving it all,” he sings, “No, this ain’t the usual way I play this.” Relationships become a balancing act between investments and profit, love being but another form of currency.
It is a hilariously trite yet also offensively simple sentiment that continues in tracks such as “Whiskey” and “Denim Jacket.” The former brings us as close as we get to a personal experience straight from Levine’s memory. He describes how the “Leaves [were] fallin’ in September” while out on a date with his ex. But describing her kiss as being “Like a whiskey” strips that previous imagery of all meaning, expressing romanticism in terms of a product whose gross blandness we cringe. A similar sentiment is explored on “Denim Jacket,” on which Levine laments a breakup, singing, “I miss you and that denim jacket” and “Do you still wear the denim jacket?” That Levine feels he can only relate to his audience through references to alcohol and chic accessories just shows a complete lack of care for fans and average listeners alike.
All of this terribly construed lyricism and dull pop-instrumentation, however, has a specific aim in mind that is more grievous than the toxic parts of its sum. To understand this, we must look at the various guest artists scattered across the track list. Employing a number of rappers from SZA to ASAP Rocky, one gets a taste of the range of talent that is here reduced to 15-second interludes between Levine’s bouts of whining. One seriously questions why Kendrick Lamar is even on a track like “Don’t Wanna Know,” other than to diversify the abundantly white-suburban tone of the record—which is ultimately the problem with a lot of Red Pill Blues. It aims at a cosmopolitan character that is deceptive rather than inclusive, forsaking the sense of energetic immediacy that is relevant to any decent pop record. There is no triumph or even joy in these tracks, just incessant egoism hidden under a veil of spoiled millennial lamentation. If you’re looking for decent club tunes or something to pass the time while commuting, go anywhere else but Red Pill Blues.
Featured Image by Interscope Records