Maroon 5 seemed well on the downslope of their career, about to settle comfortably into an adult contemporary retirement community where returns would be modest but expectations would be virtually non-existent. Then Adam Levine raised his profile significantly on The Voice, and he and co-coach Christina Aguilera (and ostensibly the rest of the M5 band as well) had the biggest hit of their career with “Moves Like Jagger.” Now, the Top 40 stakes are raised once again for Maroon 5, and it’s likely up to “Payphone,” the lead single from their (interestingly titled) upcoming album Overexposed to show whether “Jagger” was a fluke, or if the band is actually in the midst of a late-career renaissance.
No one could accuse the band of not going big with this song, at the least. “Payphone” is produced by “Jagger” masterminds Shellback and Benny Blanco, executive produced by pop guru Max Martin, and features a guest verse from rapper of the moment (well, one, two moments ago, tops) Wiz Khalifa. But Rolling Stone’s description of the song as “a disco-flavored dance-floor filler” in their blurb on the upcoming Overexposed in a Spring Music Review turns out to have been a highly generous assessment—”vaguely rhythmic ponderous ballad” would have been a more accurate, if less sexy write-up. It’s got that same kind of mid-tempo blandness that’s caused casual fans to mix up ballads like “Won’t Go Home Without You” and “Never Gonna Leave This Bed” in our heads for years.
As you could probably guess, “Payphone” falls pretty squarely into Ryan Tedder / “Grenade” territory, a plodding, piano-heavy production with martial drumming and an over-dramatic chorus. There’s some throbbing bass going on with the hook that maybe gives the song the hint of a disco edge, but it’s too low in the mix to make much of an impression, and it’s overwhelmed by Levine’s falsetto’d crooning anyway, of such uninspiring lyrics as “Still stuck in that time when we called it love / But even the sun sets in paradise” and “You turned your back on tomorrow / Cause you forgot yesterday Wiz Khalifa,” the group’s first rapper guest of note, can’t do much to spice up the proceedings, and it’s unclear if he even knows what the song he’s rapping on is about (“I’ll be right here spending all this money while you sitting round / Wondering why wasn’t you who came out from nothing”—whatever).
And yeah, this might be a petty complaint, but it still should be made: Does Levine really need to title a song “Payphone” in the year 2012, claiming “All of my change I spent on you”? C’mon Adam, nobody’s seriously used a payphone in a dramatic life moment in a decade, and you even told us that you spend “All hours I’m awake” texting. It’s not the anachronism that upsets us as much as the reliance on songwriting cliché. If you’re not content to spend the rest of your days hanging with the fogies, Adam, you’ve got to do a better job keeping up with the kids.