Is blue-eyed soul still a thing? After all, Justin Timberlake is the biggest white male R&B singer of the past decade, but to slip him into that stylistic slot feels anachronistic in an age marked by hip-hop’s rhythmic hegemony and quasi-integrated corporate structure. ‘N Sync may have peddled soul, but solo Justin sells celebrity first, then rhythm. If blue-eyed soul remains a relevant tag, it’s for smoothies like John Mayer or Rob Thomas, who assume a middle-of-the-road sensitivity and in-the-pocket groove as modern elements of white male privilege. (In the U.K., that shoe fits retro ladies like Amy Winehouse and Adele. Then again, Coldplay, right?)
Adam Levine seems to have courted this mantle more eagerly than his peers, and, as his reward, Kanye eventually enlisted him to credibly imitate Stevie on “Heard ‘Em Say.” At his day job, though, Levine is an Oates-less Hall for whom soul expresses not sincerity but self-satisfaction. On the evidence of “Harder to Breathe,” you could forgivably mistake Maroon 5 for Train in a rare overheated moment, and even Gavin DeGraw wouldn’t have fumbled the perfect four-note hook of “She Will Be Loved.” It’s fitting, though, that Maroon 5’s finest moment was this dickish farewell to a crazy gal. Why must every generation of studs insist on discovering firsthand the cumbersome imperfections of a life fucking would-be models? Oh, yeah, right.
It’s also fitting that while the smooth-voiced cock preening in the video carries the chorus, it’s the heavy piano bass later echoed more ominously by the guitar, that pinions and propels “This Love.” (Those elements are lost on Kanye’s intriguing but far too florid remix.) “This Love” demonstrates that popular rock bands retain dull rhythm sections by choice, not necessity. And sure as Hall & Oates were funkier than Duran Duran, its groove cut deeper than the angular prickling of most post-punk revivalists.