Okay, to be fair I liked Songs For Jane, the debut album. But back then you could see that Adam Levine and company was very conflicted as to the band they wanted to be. One half of the album was this great, sludgy sort of funk rock and the other half was pop crap. I so wanted the funk rock half of the band to win out.
Of course, Maroon 5 chose to go the pop crap route. And the rest is history.
‘Payphone’ is typical of the kind of stuff Maroon 5 does now. It’s firmly in the pop mode, to the point of having a rap break by Wiz Kalifa toward the end so it can be played of ‘urban contemporary’ station (it’s the transition from pop song to rap song that I think compels me to sing it over and over again). Its based on a rather outmoded image of a lover trying to reach out to the one who spurned him from a device that’s been long gone from the public consciousness, yet does very little with that image. I suspect that the one thing that saves it is what saves much of pop music these days, namely the hookiness of the melody itself is the only thing that matters.
Anyway, before I talk about the cover by Walk Off The Earth, here’s the original video:
(And no, I don’t know why the video is about a bank robbery)
Now that we’ve heard the original, here’s Walk Off The Earth’s version:
Okay, you can see that one of the things this band--who made their musical bones with covers on Youtube--did was dial back the production. By simply stripping it down, they made this cover distinct from the original. The male vocals seem a little quieter than Levine’s and less mannered. This makes for a more sincere delivery of the story. I also rather like the way the band adds the instruments one at a time, allowing us to concentrate on the lyrics and not drowning them in pop production goop.
But what elevates this cover is the rap break.
It’s entirely different from the Wiz Kalifa version. Instead of the ‘I’m rich and got stuff so who’s the fool for leaving me’ rift we get the other side of the story--the female half of this relationship telling off our POV character, first by telling him ‘I’m pretty sure payphones don’t even exist’ and them insisting that she never had her say, hinting at some of the things he did and making it clear that she’s not picking up the phone and telling him to leave a message.
This transforms the entire song, giving us a fuller perception of the relationship the song is purportedly about. It opens up the narrative and makes us question if our POV character is in the right. In short, a song about a man freeing himself from a dysfunctional relationship becomes a dialogue about where to ascribe blame. That takes some creativity.
Walk Off The Earth is presently preparing to tour in support of their new album. Maroon 5 is still Maroon Five. You can’t have everything.