TIME Music

Maroon 5 Falls Off the Bandwagon

Adam Levine Portrait 2014 Maroon 5
Ramona Rosales for TIME

The group hasn’t been a rock outfit for many years—and that’s just fine with Adam Levine

Maybe we’ve put too much emphasis on the legacy of Romanticism. Ever since Beethoven, music has been expected to reveal the performer’s true, tortured self. But Maroon 5 make a retro argument for classicism, striving to create perfect, tight melodies–craft for craft’s sake. They don’t want to express themselves–they just want to win pop music.

That was the decision of Adam Levine, who’s the face of Maroon 5–because even though the band has sold 18 million albums over 10 years and was the second biggest act on Top 40 radio in 2013 according to Billboard, he’s the only member nonhardcore fans recognize. Since taking on a job as a judge on NBC’s The Voice, a few acting roles and, most significant, Maroon 5’s total pop makeover, Levine has become an actual pop star, and he acts like one. When I walk up to his house, he’s standing shirtless, chest shaved and tattooed, sweaty from a workout, smoking a cigarette and drinking a Greek-yogurt smoothie with his new wife, a Victoria’s Secret model. At the giant, gated house he’s renting in the San Fernando Valley while his Beverly Hills home is finished, Levine put a golf driving range on the front lawn and planted the biggest American flag he could find. “These are the last days of the frat house,” he says, sitting outside next to two kegs that have sat empty since his engagement party a year ago. “We’re going to be grownups when our house is finished.”

There was a time when Maroon 5 were less about pop and more about soul, with falsetto tales of heartbreak set to guitars and funk beats that buoyed them to popularity throughout the ’00s on the strength of their 2002 debut, Songs About Jane. But then their third album, 2010’s Hands All Over, didn’t land any Top 10 hits despite being produced by Mutt Lange, who has written many of the past four decades’ hugest tunes but did not write for that album. “One of my biggest regrets was keeping Mutt out of the writing,” Levine says. “That was my own ego.” (The band was in the kind of shape that when I met the surprisingly self-effacing Levine for the first time at a party and asked what he did, he told me he was in a band I wouldn’t have heard of because I wasn’t a teenage girl.)

In 2011, the band–which had always written its own music–agreed after much debate to let Levine buy a song penned for a female singer by 20-something songwriters Ammar Malik, Benny Blanco and Shellback. Levine changed some lyrics in a playfully egomaniacal way and debuted it on The Voice. That song, “Moves Like Jagger,” became Maroon 5’s biggest hit ever. The band re-released Hands All Over a year later to include it, thereby alchemizing its failure into a platinum album. “We’re not in our mid-20s. We don’t really listen to the radio,” Levine says. “These young guys are more connected.”

Maroon 5 is the last rock band consistently in the Top 40, where guitars are nearly verboten, though the group borrows the tools of mainstream pop. “Moves Like Jagger,” with its artificial drums, electronic dance keyboards and literal whistles, would have brought the equivalent furor as when the Stones went disco–if anybody demanded authenticity from Maroon 5. But they don’t. “We have all the components of a rock band,” Levine says. “There’s a slightly more synthetic quality to our records, but that’s intentional. We’re willing to adapt enough to get our songs on the radio. As long as we write songs we love, I don’t see a reason not to make songs that fit everywhere and anywhere.”

“I would love for us to make a record more like Songs About Jane, five guys in a room jamming together,” says guitarist James Valentine. Instead, the band’s new album, V (as in, it’s their fifth album), out Sept. 2, is primed to compete with artists like Nicki Minaj and Katy Perry. “There’s not a lot of tension on this record,” Valentine says of the band’s long internal battle between pop and rock. “Pop won.” The tension in the earlier albums is what originally attracted producer Matt Wallace, who worked on Songs About Jane. Now, Wallace says, he thinks they’ve gone too far in the pop direction. “For me, personally, the best thing they could do is make a record like the first one,” Wallace says. “Songs About Jane came from a very personal place. The new stuff seems more like amazingly constructed pop.”

The success of “Jagger” also ended the debate within Maroon 5 about whether they should write their own songs. On their new album, nearly 30 outside writers are credited on 11 tracks; one song, “Leaving California,” was taken from a 90-second voice memo of melodic gibberish emailed to Blanco by Nate Ruess, lead singer of the band Fun. (Levine hadn’t even met him.) The melodies are uniformly crisp and tight, and while there are stylistic deviations–on lead single “Maps,” electric guitars evoke the Police, while a reggae-lite stomp infuses “Animals” with funky flavor–it’s all radio pop perfectly tailored to mainstream tastes, polished and expensive-sounding. Levine thinks each track on the album is a hit. “I think every song can be a single,” he says. “That’s where the being-a-psycho-competitor sh-t comes into play.”

The comedian Andy Samberg collaborated with Levine on a song for Samberg’s Lonely Island comedy album. (Even that song, the Kendrick Lamar–assisted “YOLO,” cracked the Hot 100.) “Maroon 5 makes pop for everyone,” Samberg says. “They’re trying to be the biggest band in the world, and it shows. There’s really no corner of the world you can go to and not hear Maroon 5’s music.”

But after their upcoming tour, on which they will once again sound far more rocklike than on their albums–thanks to guitar solos and actual drums–Levine is going to move into his new house, with his new wife, as a grownup. At that point, he’ll reconsider trying to win the pop game. “You can overstay your welcome when you have an incredible run like we have,” he says. “We never tried taking a break.” Not expressing yourself can be exhausting.

This appears in the September 08, 2014 issue of TIME.
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