Maxwell wants you to know that he could do better but that there's no one quite like you, that love is not a want but a need, that he's silently screaming, that you and he were supposed to grow old together. Oh, he can work up some enthusiasm now and again for a temporary bout of pleasure, but for the most part the neosoul phenom's new album, Now, finds him deserted by the lovers he used to seduce so easily. Listen to the album without paying attention, and you'll be ready to turn the lights down low, light some candles and start caressing your lover the way Maxwell's caressing the microphone. Just don't blame us if your baby suddenly starts crying out in sympathy just when you're expecting moans of a different sort.At 28, Maxwell has perfected a personal sound and style unusual in today's R&B market. He oversees his own recordings at a time when the charts are dominated by half-a-dozen big-name producers, doling out their talents to all the big names hungry for their next hit. Maxwell's arrangements are spacious, with delicately plunked guitars and harps, with snares and high-hats lightly snipping in the background, with keyboards and bass contributing minimalist accompaniment. He sings in an airy falsetto, as several overdubs harmonize and dance around his main vocal track in luxurious counterpoint. His songs are pretty, even when he's laying down blistering funk grooves (which happens only twice on Now). Maxwell's aesthetic is clearly working for him: Now went straight to No. 1 the week of its release.
Opening act Alicia Keys had her own success this year; her debut album, Songs in the Key of A, contained several big hits. Its best material nods to Prince, also a major influence on Maxwell. Although Keys is less likely to moan about being left than she is to tell the bastard to get the hell out, the two acts should make for a nice bill.