Maroon 5's 2002 debut album, Songs About Jane, was the kind of hit that doesn't happen often in the new millennium -- a genuine word-of-mouth hit whose popularity grew steadily after its release, largely due to the sweet, sunny hit "This Love," a song sly and catchy enough to stay on the adult pop charts for years without wearing out its welcome. It also was catchy enough to engender years of goodwill. Five years of goodwill, in fact, as the band toured heavily while slowly tinkering away on their second album, finally delivering It Won't Be Soon Before Long (its title perhaps a pun on the gap between records, perhaps not) half a decade after Songs About Jane. If that delay sounds like a symptom of sophomore jitters, that's not exactly true, since during that long stretch between albums Maroon 5 worked Songs About Jane and, in a sense, that album wasn't strictly their first album, either. Maroon 5 evolved out of Kara's Flowers, a post-grunge pop band whose 1997 debut never took off, not even when their debut was reissued in the wake of Maroon's success, but it did provide the group with the foundation for their success; it's where they paid their dues and learned how to be a pop band. Traces of Kara's Flowers could be heard in Maroon's rockier moments on their debut, but under their new name, the group began to develop an infatuation with blue-eyed soul-pop, which they wisely develop on It Won't Be Soon Before Long. More than develop, they modernize it, borrowing elements of Justin Timberlake's stylized synthesized soul, but Adam Levine is wise enough to know that he's no young colt, like JT. He knows that he's a pop guy, somewhat in the tradition of Hall & Oates, but he isn't trying to be retro, he's trying to fill that void, making records that are melodic, stylish, and soulful, which It Won't Be Soon Before Long certainly is.
In every respect, It Won't Be Soon is a bigger album than its predecessor: hooks pile up one after another, there's not an ounce of fat on the songs, the production is so immaculate that it glistens. If there were lingering elements of Maroon 5's alt-rock past on Songs About Jane -- primarily in its lazy, hazy vibe -- they're gone now, replaced by the sleek, assured sound of a band that's eager to embrace its status as the big American mainstream pop band of the decade. But Maroon 5 isn't desperately grasping at the brass ring, they're playing it smart, building upon the core strengths of their debut and crafting a record that's designed to appeal to many different listeners, from teens crushing on Nelly Furtado's R&B makeover to adults looking for something smooth and melodic. It Won't Be Soon Before Long appeals to both audiences with an ease that seems effortless, but like any modern blockbuster, this album was shepherded by several different teams of producers, all brought in to emphasize a different personality within the group. The bulk of the record was cut with Spike Stent and Mike Elizondo -- Stent worked with U2, Oasis, Björk, and Gwen Stefani, while Elizondo had produced Fiona Apple and Pink -- but Queens of the Stone Age producer Eric Valentine was brought in for a couple of cuts, as was Mark Endert, who mixed "This Love." There may have been three different sets of producers, but the album is streamlined and seamless, never seeming calculated even if it was clearly made with an eye on mass appeal, and there are two reasons for that. First, Maroon 5 has gelled as a band, developing a clean, crisp attack that may bear traces of its influences -- there are knowing references to Prince, the Police, even OutKast sprinkled throughout (the keyboard on "Little of Your Time" is a direct nod to "Hey Ya") -- but it's a sound that's instantly identifiable as the band's own signature. Nowhere is that more evident than in how they can give soulful grooves like "If I Never See Your Face Again" a rock edge -- or how they can suddenly explode into shards of noise as they do on the coda of "Kiwi" -- or how when the electronic instruments dominate the production, the music still breathes like the work of an actual band, not like something that was constructed on a computer. But like with any good blue-eyed soul, the reason that this album works is the songs themselves. Even the flashiest production-driven tracks here -- the opening one-two punch of "If I Never See Your Face Again" and "Makes Me Wonder" -- aren't about feel; they're about the songs, which are uniformly tight and tuneful, sounding better with repeated plays, the way any radio-oriented pop should. If some of the ballads aren't as distinguished as the livelier tracks, they nevertheless are as sharply crafted as the rest, and the end result is that It Won't Be Soon Before Long is that rare self-stylized blockbuster album that sounds as big and satisfying as was intended.