Hello, and welcome to Radio Rants. Today, we’re looking at an old friend.
As we head into the summer months, it’s time for me to do the yearly Maroon 5 Radio Rant (I can’t believe this has become a thing). The first time I wrote about Maroon 5 was for then hot single “Misery”, a “This Love” rewrite that saw the band leaning harder than normal on frontman Adam Levine’s good looks. That song, along with the Hands All Over album, underperformed, and if the band wasn’t over, they were at least sliding more into obscurity.
Then “Moves Like Jagger” happened.
I wrote about the song back in July, when it first came out, and I grossly undersold the thing’s staying power. It’s catchy enough and dancey enough to serve as an all-purpose pop song, and while it wasn’t one of my favorite songs of 2011, it was enjoyable. It’s also, mindblowingly enough, still on the charts as I’m writing this. Considering their last few singles petered out without much, I expected “Moves Like Jagger” to do the same, but I was wrong.
Where I wasn’t wrong, however, was in “Jagger” being a sound change for Maroon 5. Even though they were always a pop rock band with the emphasis on pop, “Moves Like Jagger” catered more to the radio any other song the band had done before. And, when I heard that they have a new album on the way this June fresh of “Jagger”‘s success, my first thought was that it’ll be 13 or so songs that try to sound like that. So, let’s look at lead single “Payphone”.
After opening with a mini-chorus, “Payphone” reveals itself to be a pop ballad. The song’s primary instrumentation comes from a somewhat hip-hop snare beat with a simple (but tasteful) piano line to go with it. Every now and then, bass and some clean electric guitar creep into the mix, too.
What’s most striking about “Payphone” is how…pop-songy the chorus feels. It begins with the Chorus Whoosh, and synth strings and a drum machine beat drown out everything else. But, overall, it’s a pretty strong chorus, and sounds uplifting and pretty. I wonder what the lyrics to it are.
“I’m at a payphone/Trying to call home all of the change I spent on you” Ok, the “call home” part still baffles me, but that’s a pretty sharp line. Although why the band’s decided to name drop a payphone in 2012 baffles me. At this point, it’s as dated and irrelevant writing a song that used cassette tapes as a metaphor.
“Where have the times gone/Baby it’s all wrong/where are the plans we made for two/If happy endings did exist/I would still be holding you like this” Vague, but still holding together. Fits the balladry well, too.
“All those fairytales are full of shit/One more fucking love song, I’ll be sick” …well, that got vulgar in a hurry. In fact, aside from “I don’t give a shit” in “Moves Like Jagger”, does Maroon 5 actually swear in their music?
Hell, maybe they swore just as a warmup for Wiz Khalifa’s opening line: “Man, fuck that shit”. Now, to “Payphone”‘s credit, the Maroon 5 parts of it feel less bitterly narcissistic than their other break-up songs (just about every single the band’s done could, on some level, be reduced to “We should fuck” and/or “Well fuck you”, the only immediate exception being “She Will Be Loved”). That feeling comes through the chorus, but not as much on the verses. And then Wiz shows up.
Some rappers can bang out a good guest verse on any track (Ludacris, Nicki Minaj), and others just can’t. And Wiz just…can’t. Not all of his guest verses are bad, but at best he’s average. And he’s not at his best here. While Levine at least sounds like he misses the woman, Khalifa takes her out and grills her for leaving him before he was famous. On top of that, he just doesn’t sound like he knew what the song sounded like going in: his flow doesn’t ride the beat as much as jump on, fall off, and jump back on again, and his meter and rhyme schemes connect maybe half the time. It’s an awkward verse.
Something about “Payphone” feels like an awkward move from Maroon 5. Here, take a look at their last Top 20 hit before “Jagger”: “Misery”. Merits of the song aside, doesn’t it sound like an actual band playing it? You know, with instruments and shit? You don’t get that with “Payphone”, the music for which could have gone to any radio-friendly pop star. As a song, it isn’t one of my favorites of the year, but it’s an interesting first statement for the new album.