“If I knew everyone in the world, they would love me.”
— Adam Levine, GQ, July 2014
Keith Richards calls it “lead vocalist syndrome.” Its symptoms include a bloated self-regard that often masks a profound insecurity, a susceptibility to flattery and a refusal to attend sound check. It’s almost always terminal.
Counting Crows lead singer Adam Duritz and Maroon 5’s Adam Levine are, unfairly or not, poster children for this affliction. They’re the most maligned frontmen of their respective generations. They’re captains of profoundly uncool bands famous for their offstage exploits, canyon-dwelling lotharios who have a fondness for Victoria’s Secret models that borders on encyclopedic (Levine) and who dated two-thirds of the female cast of “Friends” during a brief but legendary period in the mid-’90s (Duritz).
This week, their respective bands drop new discs that neatly encapsulate everything you might love or hate about either group, though their approaches vastly differ. For Duritz, a former English major who has been open about his struggle with mental illness, albums are life-and-death artistic expressions of what is probably a really complicated id. For Levine, the reigning Sexiest Man Alive who recently married a supermodel, albums are things that help move ancillary product, such as his Kmart line of clothing or his fragrance (“Adam Levine,” with notes of amber and sandalwood).
Maroon 5 began as a limpid soul-pop band and diversified into funky, dance-floor pop after the like-minded “Moves Like Jagger” resuscitated the band’s flat-lining career. Its last release, “Overexposed,” wasn’t a cohesive album but a grab bag of post-“Jagger” hopefuls manned by hitmakers such as Max Martin and engineered for chart domination. “Overexposed” was a shameless race to the bottom, but “V” (pronounced “five”) is better. It’s what happens when a talented band unburdens itself of its few remaining scruples, hires a small army of boldface super-producers and aims for peak cheese.
“V” is a more cohesive disc than its predecessor, and it hits every guilty-pleasure nerve bundle. There are songs that imitate the Police, songs that imitate Bruno Mars imitating the Police, and exercises in giddy, Prince-ified disco funk (“Sugar”) and falsetto-happy, warp-speed dance pop (“Feelings” — when it comes to song titles, Maroon 5 are not overachievers).
The record-closing, weepy “My Heart Is Open” is a duet with Gwen Stefani, Levine’s fellow judge on “The Voice” and his closest living female analogue. In fulfillment of the band’s one-thoughtful-song-per-album mandate, everyone pretends to be contemplative and sad, but Levine wasn’t made for that — he was built to be callow and slippery, and he’s commendably good at those things. To hear him try to compute any emotion other than lust or mild annoyance feels artificial and awkward, like watching a dog try to play Words With Friends.
If Maroon 5 has a sincerity deficit, Counting Crows are the opposite — they’re painful sincerity personified. Maroon 5 may have evolved from early days as wan, blue-eyed funksters, but Counting Crows began life as the world’s most accomplished Van Morrison tribute band and have pretty much stayed that way, specializing in earnest and rootsy pop-folk that is roomy enough to encompass country, exaggeratedly twangy mock country, Deadhead jam folk and even the manic pop of “Accidentally in Love,” the band’s 2004 hit and its only flirtation with a “Moves Like Jagger”-style career realignment.
“Somewhere Under Wonderland,” the first album of original material in six years, may be the band’s best since its 1993 debut, “August and Everything After,” with a handful of songs (the sprawling, almost prog-y opener, “Palisades Park,” the lean ballad “God of Ocean Tides”) that rank among the band’s finest. Its bedrock sound and lyrical themes remain largely unchanged — love mystifies, fame alienates, Middle America is a comforting blank space — with enough art-pop name-dropping (Elvis, Alex Chilton, Johnny Appleseed) to rival Thomas Pynchon.
The disc’s best track, “Earthquake Driver,” contains one of the most apt descriptions of rock stardom in memory: “I am a cipher / I am a blank space / Filled up with words you remember / From whenever you saw my face.” It’s a bouncy, Mumfordian exercise in cognitive dissonance even Levine might recognize.
“V” is both shinier and darker than any of his band’s past work, festooning even its sourest songs with tinsel. When, on the creepy but strangely upbeat “In Your Pocket,” Levine confronts a faithless lover (“Show me that phone in your pocket, girl / . . . It should be really easy / If you have nothing to hide”), it feels overbearing and stalkeresque. If anyone in 2014 still thinks this is sexy, Robin Thicke’s career died in vain.
Stewart is a freelance writer.