Let’s take Adam Levine seriously

The "Voice" judge and Maroon 5 singer would fail miserably on his show -- but has become a surprisingly sexy singer

Topics: Music, TV, The Voice, Maroon 5, Adam Levine,

Let's take Adam Levine seriouslyAdam Levine (Credit: Reuters/Brendan McDermid)

Of the four judges or celebrity contestants or coaches — or whatever you call them — on “The Voice,” Adam Levine is the worst vocalist. Blake Shelton’s voice is sturdy and dependable like an old pickup truck. Christina Aguilera has strong, ostentatious pipes. And Cee Lo Green has proved his vocal chops on solo albums like “Cee Lo Green… Is the Soul Machine” and even the weirdly overlooked “The Lady Killer.”

But Levine, who also fronts Maroon 5 — so he represents “rock” on “The Voice,” which returns tonight on NBC — doesn’t possess a whole lot of physical or interpretive range. He tends to linger in the mid-range, although on slower songs he does try to hit higher notes, which only reveals his limitations. Lately, he has been favoring AutoTune, but to his credit, that’s more an interesting aesthetic device than a shortcut corrective measure.

That said — and Cee Lo’s freak charisma aside — Levine may actually be the best singer of the lot. He may sound like Al Green with an undiagnosed respiratory infection, but he does much more with much less. Sure, it’s ironic that he’s judging “The Voice” (which recently began its second season of not being a kingmaker like the faltering “American Idol”), since it’s doubtful he’d get very far on any of these shows as an actual contestant. Levine doesn’t have the chops that style of pop music demands, but that’s just one of the things that makes him and Maroon 5 interesting. That they’ve managed to become one of the biggest rock bands in the country is not unlikely. But somehow it is refreshing considering the alternatives: Chad Kroeger is back in the news and even Hoobastank has a new album out.

It certainly helps that Maroon 5 are just as interested in R&B as they are in rock ‘n’ roll, which makes his casting as the “rock” guy on “The Voice” seem like unimaginative typecasting. The band’s facility for melding pop hooks with R&B production certainly distinguishes them from other major-label acts, but perhaps more intriguingly, they treat both as avenues to and from sex. Levine — impossibly — manages to convey what might be described as a slinky sensuality that defies the concerns of the mainstream, the limitations of Maroon 5, and all logic everywhere.



When he’s crooning come-ons, his voice lends the music a satisfying lewdness, a sense of sticky physicality that gives his snaky hooks a pheromonal urgency. “Overexposed,” their fourth studio album, begins with the romantic recriminations and pop-reggae beats of “One More Night,” but the relationship drama is much less interesting than the way Levine slides around those syncopated beats with sly, comfortable fluidity: “Got you stuck on my body, on my body like a tattoo / And now I’m feeling stupid, feeling stupid crawling back to you.”

Must we point out who Levine is not? He is no Barry White, who had a God-given voice like a velvet airplane. Nor is he another Al Green, who could navigate even the trickiest melodies without breaking eye contact with his listener. He’s no Prince, but who possibly could climb that particular mountain? Levine’s not even R. Kelly, whose superlatively smooth vocals ramp up into weirdness that the concept of — just to grab a random example out of the air — a “sexosaurus” sounds like something Kinsey might have scribbled notes about.

But Maroon 5 are incorporating lessons from these artists rather than borrowing Eddie Vedder or Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard. For them, AOR&B is less an opportunity for confession (although there is much of that in their music); instead, they’re at their best when they’re documenting the excitement of seduction. Levine sounds no more engaged than when he’s under a woman’s power, which makes “Lucky Strike” arguably the best moment on “Overexposed.” He’s not doing the seducing; instead, he’s sexually dumbstruck: “And I can’t wait another minute,” he admits. “I can’t take the look she’s giving.” As an evocation of sexual submission, well, it’s got more craft and insight than “Fifty Shades of Gray,” and is all the more impressive for switching the genders.

The fact is, Levine may be professionally handsome but he’s no natural seducer. There’s no velvet in his vocals, only an adenoidal grain that portrays him as an average Joe who knows he has to work a little harder to get a woman to look twice at him, let alone join him in a compromising position. He’s no Pick-Up Artist exorcising his own powerlessness via sexual power plays. He’s on “The Voice,” not “The Game.” He’s invested in the act of sex — in being rocked all night, in having hands on a body — which lends Levine’s music a certain immediacy that belies the slick, occasionally overworked production.

Traditionally critics react to Maroon 5 with a stifled yawn, if they react at all. But at their best, Maroon 5 can be just as compelling as indie R&B acts like How to Dress Well and the Weeknd, up-and-coming acts who tend to emphasize atmosphere over grit. But that’s at their best, and Maroon 5 aren’t always at their best. When the band formed around the turn of the century, they weren’t exactly sure how to fully integrate their various genre interests, so on their 2002 debut, “Songs About Jane,” they came across like just another post-alt rock act, albeit one with a greater emphasis on rhythm and a drummer who actually got a vote. The hook on “This Love” landed it in radio playlists, but too often the songwriting sounded waterlogged, as Levine sang about the kind of idealized women who only exist in crappy rock. Jane could been Train’s “Meet Virginia” or Plain White Ts’ “Delilah” or every woman Adam Duritz has sung about ever.

But Maroon 5 are one of the few bands that grew more adventurous and weirder as they became more popular and professional. Starting around the time Levine showed up on albums by Kanye West and Handsome Boy Modeling School, he gradually indulged his R&B jones. “Moves Like Jagger,” a single appended to the band’s 2010 album “Hands All Over,” may be Maroon 5’s pinnacle, with its “Young Folk” whistling theme, porno soundtrack guitars, and its casual cockiness: “Look into my eyes and I’ll own you,” Levine declares, “with my moves like Jagger, I got the moves like Jagger.” By sharp contrast, the broodingly acoustic “Come Away to the Water,” their contribution with Rozzi Crane to the “Hunger Games” soundtrack, shows their considerable range, not only conveying a subtle menace but also revealing Levine to be a pretty sensitive duet partner.

“Overexposed” can’t replicate the moodiness of “Water” or the cocksmanship of “Jagger,” but it’s a decent follow-up with a raft of charting singles, middling reviews, and a sense of being undervalued and overlooked. The title is too clever by half and the album cover looks like they lost a bet, but there’s plenty of great moments here, from the “Xanadu” synth cascades of “Doin’ Dirt” to technological disillusionment of first single “Payphone”: “All those fairytales are full of shit / one more fucking love song I’ll be sick.” The obvious question is, Who uses a payphone these days? But a more interesting question would be, Is that a Taylor Swift slam?

As an album, however, “Overexposed” will likely go down in history as minor 5, due to the band’s reliance on those big rousing choruses that not even originators like Coldplay do very well anymore, and on Levine’s insistence on peppering the tracklist with slower numbers. He’s no natural balladeer, with a fairly mundane solemnity and a gravity that undercuts the lasciviousness of the faster tracks. In that regard, “Sad” is far and away the weakest track, “not least because the chorus goes, “I’m sad, so sad.”

It’s likely that Maroon 5 will go their entire career without making a “Kid A” or a “Sign o’ the Times” or even a “Some Nights,” but who cares? Their survival throughout the 2000s has depended more on inventive and exuberant singles than on statement albums. They were a perfect band for radio, but now they’re becoming perfect for iPods and playlists, making them one of the few bands to navigate the tricky transition from the CD era to the digital age. They’d make for a killer greatest hits collection, if that format didn’t seem so tied to physical media. Of course, you’d have to skip the first five or six songs, but the rest would be a crash course in how to make a limited instrument sound almost limitless.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>