Hello, and welcome to Radio Rants. Let’s thaw out today.
Looking at a double-header today because I’ve been seriously slacking on the radio hits. There’s been a lot of exciting music in the first quarter of 2015–there are already at least three albums that could argue for a spot in my top ten–but very little of that excitement’s translated to mainstream pop, or at least the charts. I still love “Uptown Funk”, but I’m ready for a new zeitgeist. So, let’s look at the two songs that spent a month trying to dethrone it.
First up, for no more discernible reason than I thought of it sooner, is Ed Sheeran with “Thinking Out Loud.” I’ve ragged on Sheeran before for writing bad songs, but I respect him as the British Bruno Mars: he might not always have A1 material, but he’s a solid performer who’ll sell the shit out of anything. Granted, it’s a lesser level of respect because Sheeran’ll never make me lose my shit the way this did, but still, any guy solo act that can notch multiple hits these days is doing something right. Probably. To other people. I still stand by “Don’t” and “Sing” being awful.
The biggest challenge facing “Thinking Out Loud”, meanwhile, is that it’s “Let’s Get It On” stripped to the essentials. That’s not even me being reductive (for once). That slavish, kickass guitar riff that winds through “Let’s Get It On” has been replaced by stock “dorm room soul” guitar strums, while the strings and horns are absent in favor of piano fills that are kind of winsome, but nothing too lively. Gone too, is the life in the drums. And despite all that, “Let’s Get It On” and “Think Out Loud” are unmistakably the same damn song. You can drop one on top of the other in the laziest way possible, and watch two songs become one instantaneously. Sheeran’s probably thanking those thousand stars he can’t be sued for a chord progression.
All that Marvin Gaye rubs shoulders with a lot of John Mayer, too. Granted, this sort of chilled out, clean Fender strat, white guy blues is Mayer’s wheelhouse, but I heard that endearingly wanky guitar solo, and honestly thought this was a song John Mayer wrote to afford new guitar strings after no one bought Paradise Valley. I even checked the credits. But no, Mayer only shows up on the version at the Grammys, where he backs Sheeran with Herbie Hancock and Questlove in the most overqualified and underutilized supergroup ever (my suggestion: next time pair Quest and Mayer with Dave Chappelle; proven results). There’s something dissonant about seeing this much talent on a track that’s so simple. Sheeran wrote “Thinking Out Loud” as a straight ahead wedding tune; it’s “fuck me, I’m sensitive” dressed in a schmaltzy a tie and vest.
But, here’s the problem: I like that about it. Ed shimmying through a Pharrell demo, or preening like Adam Levine rubbed me the wrong way because it felt like a cheap radio move. But despite being a much simpler, kind of boring song, “Thinking Out Loud” hits its marks as a cheesy, kind of schluby wedding tune, and Sheeran absolutely sells the chorus. Lyrically, it burns through every woo-the-girl-at-the-coffeeshop cliche possible, but Sheeran performs the shit out of it; he knows what he’s doing. Not a song that’ll end up the year-end, but a nice singalong all the same.
Also joining us today after appearing on the Worst of 2014 list is Maroon 5. I honestly kind of thought these guys were, if not done, at least in a slump after “Maps” didn’t take off, but the back to back success of “Animals (mals)” and now “Sugar” have proven me wrong. They might not have the stranglehold on the charts they during Overexposed (“One More Night” was number one for a staggering nine weeks), but the cultural currency of Adam Levine and the Maroon 4 is still alive and well.
And I don’t think anyone’s as bummed about Maroon 5 still being around as Maroon 5. They’re not just boring, they even sound bored. Their most recent album V plays with all of the passion and zeal of an amusement park show choir slumming it through “Walkin’ on Sunshine” and “It’s Gonna Be Me” at an 11 AM Tuesday performance. And that same lethargy applies to “Sugar”.
“Sugar” gets points for this much: it’s head and shoulders above “Animals” and “Maps” on every level. Mostly that’s due to pop-soul being a lively genre with bounce to it even on cruise control, but it’s also Maroon 5’s ostensible wheelhouse; the more their rhythm section gets to strut around, the better. Even though it’s (relatively speaking) loose and breezy, “Sugar” is still just as by-numbers as you’d expect: the bass pops right where it’s supposed to, the falsetto kicks in like clockwork, and the chorus is head-tiltingly smooth. Any sense of groove or real musicianship is covered in a thick studio lacquer that sands the track down to the dullest form of soul possible.
If you want to hear an excited version of “Sugar”, look no further than Katy Perry’s “Birthday” (which itself is the child of Perry’s own “Last Friday Night” and Bruno Mars’ “Treasure”). “Birthday” is a less stifled, more colorful version of “Sugar” that isn’t afraid to be a little goofy, and is all the better for it. Sure, Levine wouldn’t sing something this stupid, but Perry wouldn’t sound as bored. The similarities between the two songs feel like more than coincidence: not only do they share a cowriter and producer in Dr. Luke and Cirkut and the same vamps, but their videos have the same premise of watching pop stars crash birthday parties and weddings and everyone’s just going to go with it.
Outside “Uptown Funk”, “Sugar” is the current hit that the most real life tangibility. It’s the one that’s made its way to playlists at diners, waiting rooms, shopping malls, gyms, and wherever else music is treated as a part of the background. This seems about right. This is the kind of song that’s best experienced where you can hear enough to appreciate it on the shallowest level possible; anymore than that, and the taste of aspartame develops. Calling this song “Sugar” is a bit of a misnomer: it might be sweet, but the taste is all artificial.