There’s a new Blade Runner in movie theaters. The most buzzed-about television series is an amalgamation of the peak-era work of Steven Spielberg, Stephen King, and John Hughes. Even the pop charts bear the unmistakable whiff of Aqua Net. So it should come as no surprise that, in the grand tradition of Bruno Mars reinventing himself into a more tween-friendly Morris Day of the Time, Maroon 5 has, with Red Pill Blues, rebranded themselves as Daryl Hall and six John Oates—or at least a watered-down Chromeo.
Fortunately—and, again, like Mars—the retro sound suits them. With its soft keyboards, clean muted guitar, and singer Adam Levine’s smooth falsetto, opening track “Best 4 You” is appealingly frothy blue-eyed soul, as warmly nostalgic as it is ultimately insubstantial. Lead single “What Lovers Do,” featuring guest vocals by SZA, is catchier still, with Levine’s AutoTuned hook recalling a (much) whiter Roger Troutman. Maroon 5 sounds more like a proper band on these tracks than they have in at least a decade.
Red Pill Blues has moments that recall other, superior pop music—including the group’s own 2002 debut, Songs About Jane—but it’s still a latter-day Maroon 5 album, which means it also has more than its share of bland, underachieving grist for suburban shopping centers and “rhythmic pop” radio. Levine’s digitally augmented vocal acrobatics remain as likely to irritate as ingratiate; the ascending vocal hook on “Wait,” in the spirit of 2011’s “Moves Like Jagger,” bores its way into the skull with the force of a trepanning drill. Elsewhere, the dull, turgid “Whiskey” is unenlivened by an A$AP Rocky guest verse that sounds literally phoned in (bonus tracks featuring Kendrick Lamar and Future leave a similar non-impression). “Closure” doesn’t even have brevity as a virtue, stretching out into a remedial late-1970s Santana-style jam for an interminable 11-and-a-half minutes.
Our pop culture’s current collective nostalgia for the 1980s is, like all nostalgia, a comforting lie; things weren’t really better back then, we just remember them that way. But listening to Red Pill Blues makes one yearn for an era when there at least seemed to be more room for genuinely ambitious, artful Top 40 pop. In other words, I’ll take the blue pill.