Three years ago, Maxwell was the most pretentious soul singer in America. That's when his second album, Embrya, a mannered and complicated work filled with artsy titles and a cluttered birth-to-death theme, was released. It carried the promise of Maxwell's 1996 debut, Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite, to its most extreme point and offered upscale, modern R&B for an audience rooted in old-school musicality and values. Somewhere between the neo-soul fuse he lit on Suite and Embrya's conception, Maxwell's ambitions got the best of him, and he became an annoying auteur. With Now, his latest album, he's more restrained. He's musically ambitious, this time. There's a banjo running through "For Lovers Only," and Shania Twain's steel guitarist is featured on "Was My Girl" -- the subtle proclamations befit the songs. The funk is often slow and slinky, and even the booty-shaking numbers are relatively relaxed. Maxwell has taken the sentiment of Now's first single, "Get to Know Ya," to heart: He takes time to build these tunes. The affected concept of Embrya (and, to an extent, Suite) is barely perceptible on Now. In a way, this concludes Maxwell's time trilogy (where Suite represented the past and Embrya the future) on its most graceful note. This is sexy music, and Maxwell, moving his soaring falsetto atop the equally towering arrangements, makes it all seem smarter and more sophisticated than the average R&B loverman talk.