Fifteen years since their breakthrough album, Songs About Jane, and custodians of a continued chart success since then, no one should apologise for the assured momentum around Maroon 5’s sixth studio release. Red Pill Blues hit shops on 3 November 2017, after a lengthy trail of two standalone singles that kept the band’s profile up as touring commitments for the previous record, V, came to a close.
‘Don’t Wanna Know’, featuring Kendrick Lamar, had been a major hit the previous autumn, making it to No.6 in the US and going one better in the UK. The song put a fresh spin on the band’s more familiar pop-rock-soul fusion, and Lamar’s contribution also shored up its potential for hip-hop playlists. Forsaking the edgier themes picked for many of Maroon 5’s videos, the promo for ‘Don’t Wanna Know’ appeared to gently mock the band’s profile, seeing the group dressed as life-size bugs for a Pokémon Go theme and featuring a cameo from actor Vince Vaughan. The confidence that underpinned the band’s writing for Red Pill Blues ultimately led to this strong single being left off the album, making it one of the band’s few smash songs not fully attached to a parent release (though it was added to deluxe editions of Red Pill Blues).
‘Cold’, the second interim single, was also left off the album. Enlisting another rapper – this time, Future – the song was a smoother jam, reminiscent of the band’s earlier work, making it to No.16 in the US and comfortably entering the Top 40 elsewhere. The video featured one of frontman Adam Levine’s best performances in a video to date. The clip, filmed in December 2016, in California, was built around the idea of a night that takes an unpredictable turn. Levine is called about a sequence being prepared for the song and makes a detour to a house party that sees his drink being spiked, leading to a trippy, effects-laden sequence that led many channels to air it during off-peak times.
While those songs worked their magic across radio and streaming services, Maroon 5 hunkered down at Conway Recording Studios, with the first teasers from the sessions appearing on their social media accounts in March 2017. As ever with a band so dedicated to live work, the recordings were scheduled around concert commitments, and it wasn’t until that August’s Teen Choice Awards that Levine announced the new album was nearly ready and being prepared for release in November. The timing of the announcement – as the band were honoured with a Decade Award to mark their career – reinforced Maroon 5’s hitmaking credentials. “We are never gonna go away,” joked Levine on accepting the surfboard presented to them that night. “We’ve been around forever, which is amazing.”
Almost immediately, the band dropped its collaboration with R&B singer SZA, ‘What Lovers Do’, and it became another big hit, peaking just inside the Top 10 stateside and hitting No.12 in the UK. Its playful Joseph Kahn-directed video came with a knowing sting in its tail, but helped promote the track widely across the increasingly important online platforms, as well as the traditional digital TV outlets. Unusually for the band, the song reworked elements of someone else’s hit – ‘Sexual’, by Neiked – earning that 2016 smash’s songwriters additional credits on the Maroon 5 single. In many ways, ‘What Lovers Do’ was a purer pop outing for the band than had become typical of late, but it demonstrated the mature confidence of the group as they powered on through their second decade of making hits.
That self-belief also saw a wide array of collaborators appear on Red Pill Blues. It was as if the band understood its almost unique position of being able to absorb contemporary pop movements into their work without diluting their trademark sound. Unlike so many acts struggling to stay afloat as the market shifted unpredictably around them, Maroon 5 seemed able to shape their approach to fit the moment. ‘What Lovers Do’ was very different to any of the tracks that appeared on Songs About Jane, but the musical narrative driving the group from then until 2017 seems smooth and consistent.
Another thing that stood Maroon 5 apart from their contemporaries was their unwavering commitment to high-concept video productions that, while often exploring themes of emotional tension, consistently demonstrated imaginative flair. ‘Wait’, picked as the second single proper from Red Pill Blues, and released in January 2018, after the promotional track ‘Whiskey’, was another case in point. A melodic midtempo song perhaps more in keeping with the band’s work a decade earlier, it boasted another sharp, captivating clip.
‘Girls Like You’, reworked from the album version for its single release, emerged in summer 2018. A charming, understated jam that almost closed Red Pill Blues, the song drafted in rapper Cardi B to add a little sparkle to the mix. A simple but clever video treatment was bolstered with numerous cameos – but, in truth, the song didn’t need much help. It stormed up the charts to reach Top 10 status worldwide, quickly becoming one of the band’s best-loved hits.
So what to make of the chapter that brings Maroon 5’s incredible story (almost) up to date? Certainly the formal induction of Sam Farrar, who had been working with the band pretty consistently since 2012, seems to have made them a fully rounded musical collective, with individual members seamlessly weaving through different stages of the recording process before gelling cohesively into a tight and efficient touring machine for their habitual treks across the planet. With that, less emphasis appears to be placed on themed direction, making way for a more confident let’s-see-what happens approach; outside collaborators remain eclectic and relaxed, and production credits are varied – as if the band let songs evolve at their own pace with different guardians to shape the final result. Of course, Levine maintains a consistent hand in all of the writing credits and his profile remains a considerable asset.
Red Pill Blues opened with ‘Best 4 U’, a funky throwback that positioned the album’s dance and R&B influences centre-stage; it’s defiantly a summer record, illustrated by the fact that its biggest hit to date came a good six months after the set’s original release on 3 November 2017. The final track, appropriately titled ‘Closure’, instantly transports you to those hazy Balearic beaches as the sun wearily shuffles south on the horizon. The LunchMoney Lewis collaboration, ‘Who I Am’, is a riff-drenched shuffler, while ‘Lips On You’ undoubtedly serves as the most intense moment on Red Pill Blues: a sharp electro ballad among the band’s best.
Ultimately, the album buzzes along at a tight pace, while the modest running time invites repeated listens – another 70s and 80s throwback, perhaps, to a time when albums weren’t allowed to become too bloated.
Red Pill Blues is certainly the record that keeps Maroon 5 most consistently close to the dancefloor; everything about it seems of-the-moment and refreshed – not quite carefree (it’s too well-crafted for that) but certainly as relaxed a record as Maroon 5 has made to date. Even the jaunty album artwork – inspired by filters found on Snapchat – is testament to a more playful and perhaps experimental approach. When Levine joked at an awards ceremony that it might be the band’s final album – a quip he hastily withdrew – he was perhaps drawing from the comfortable rhythm the group had found itself in. Where on earth next, and to what end?
The live stage is where Maroon 5 are routinely praised loudest, but their confident, assured pop records and quirky, innovative videos make them a band of their age. Maybe that’s the key to their continuing success – a working cycle that keeps them tight and focused; a sound that yields to contemporary influence but remains resolutely unique; and a commitment to quality songwriting that keeps the hits coming.
Levine and crew’s most famous song referenced The Rolling Stones. It may have more relevance than first meets the eye. Isn’t there just a hint of those long-standing survivors’ CV about Maroon 5? We’ll watch this space…
Think you know your Maroon 5? Here are 20 things you didn’t know about Red Pill Blues.
Red Pill Blues can be bought here.