“Blue-eyed soul” has always been a racial euphemism, a thinly veiled way of saying “white guys who sing like black guys.” On that level, then, you could call Maroon 5 “hazel-eyed blue-eyed soul,” because lead singer Adam Levine is a white guy who sings like white guys who sing like black guys — in his case, Darryl Hall of Hall & Oates and Sting in his early days with The Police, with the less husky tone but measured phrasing of Simply Red’s Mick Hucknall thrown in. And as a white guy safely ensconced in my middle age, I find it disconcertingly irresistible.
Levine leans into pop hooks the way civilian drivers steer on well-banked curves coming down a mountain pass, allowing themselves the fleeting illusion of Le Mans or NASCAR, a manufactured frisson of adventure. There is a tinge of giddiness and desperation at play, a whiff of abandon that harkens back to the surrender of gospel, but the mode is still much more croon than shout, and the template is utterly predictable, the melody banked on the curves before and after the bridge so we can all sing along with anticipatory gusto.
In that sense, the quintessential Maroon 5 song is “She Will Be Loved,” which various media outlets have unsuccessfully tried to kill with nonstop exposure. Levine is less of a hunk than a lithe willow, a dude, but sensitive, and he milks that mixture of cool and tender, telling women with broken smiles that he wants to make them feel beautiful, that, like John Cusak in “Say Anything,” he’ll stand outside their house in the pouring rain, and put up with the abuse of allowing these women to come and go as they please: “I know that goodbye means nothing at all/Comes back and begs me to catch her everytime she falls.” The curious third-person construction serves two purposes: It lessens Levine’s emasculation and expands the message to all women — “she,” not “you,” will be loved.
But the song goes nowhere without Levine’s voice, which is hazel-eyed soul at its finest, pregnant with emotions that aren’t visceral enough to be threatening or maudlin; make-believe feelings that manipulate like a Hollywood blockbuster. It’s no coincidence that Kelly Preston is a mysterious, cougar-like presence in the “She Will Be Loved” video, or that teen icon Miley Cyrus sings the tune in a flirty scene of a movie called “The Last Song.”
I’ve heard “She Will Be Loved” hundreds of times and I still turn it up whenever I come across it. I don’t care how ersatz it is, I just want to steer through those curves coming down the mountain. It’s called a guilty pleasure.
Lately, Levine and Maroon 5 have upped the ante on their charms, enlisting mega-producer Mutt Lange, the husband and hit-maker for Shania Twain, who also gilded platinum for AC/DC and Def Leppard. He makes shiny music equally suitable for radios and arenas, and on “Hands All Over” he has made Maroon 5’s formulaic template even more taut and buffed, daring listeners to resist a stab at a country-and-western crossover in collaboration with the vocal group Lady Antebellum, and having Levine, who is incapable of expressing genuine misery, sing a song called “Misery,” and making it the record’s lead single.
The video telegraphs that it’s all supposed to be tongue-in-cheek: This guy’s so miserable he has to play grab-ass and lip-bite with this gorgeous woman. But I can’t locate the soul, even thrice-removed, and so there is no pleasure, guilty or otherwise, for me in this bleached-out ditty. I’m hardly the target audience, of course, but I suspect tonight will be the last time Maroon 5 plays an arena-sized venue.
Maroon 5 at Target Center, tonight, October 28, at 7:30 p.m.; tickets $29-$65.