Bruno Mars' success has been odd in that he as an artist and his marketing team have always been in slight conflict about where he stands demographically. Aesthetically everything about the Hawaiian-born singer suggests an angling for young teenagers, a cutesy image that's instantly agreeable to anyone under the age of 18.
Yet that contrasts with Mars himself, a man who isn't afraid of a cuss or two - Unorthodox Jukebox has plenty- and who, unlike several other names he consistently appears alongside at the top of the charts, is fully in control of his own song writing, developing a style that is far more closer to his actual age, 27, and actual being, than the target market it would appear he's been dressed for. It's a contrast that worked well for his 2010 debut LP Doo-Wops & Hooligans, leading to a Grammy for single 'Just The Way You Are,' and on Unorthodox Jukebox he pushes that chasm between his two facets wider, with the first half of the album in particular trained either for the dance floor or for the arenas he's now well become accustomed to. His lyrics flick between an open air of honesty and traditional proclamations of desire and couplets that lick with sexual intent - and even when he is at his more innocent, phrases like "you make a mess of me" are undoubtedly delivered with a rogeuish glint in the eye.
He's at his best when making straight ahead pop songs, and so it goes that those are this album's best moments. Shimmering opening 'Young Girls' is the sort of song that all those of 80's influenced blogtronica type artists would secretly love to be able to make, so big is it in sound and atmosphere. 'Locked Out Of Heaven' recalls the The Police a little in its sultrily-grooving bass lines and strutting guitars; make no mistake, even as Mars is singing banalities like "your sex takes me to paradise" he's canny in the influences he's cherry picking, and knows how to mould them just so to make something that's texturally rich but ultimately massively accessible.
Across the album what's pleasing is how Mars doesn't resort to getting on-trend by crowbarring in any over the top dubstep bass wobbles, that peers like Ellie Goulding and Rihanna have agreed to. So many albums at the top end of the charts this year have felt leaden footed because of this, dragged down in bass baggage. Unorthodox Jukebox in comparison skips through lightly, teaming up with his old production mates The Smeezingtons giving the whole album a sound far more rooted to disco and funk than anything more of the moment, and it's successful in doing that. 'Treasure' in particular sounds like some sort of lost late 1970's Motown jam freshened up and made cinematic for the 21st century, follow up 'Moonshine's' a nocturnal counterpoint that oozes with class in spite of another batch of perfunctory lyrics.
There are a couple of times where things do go wrong; 'When I Was Your Man' is an overly schmaltzy ballad that illustrates that whilst Mars' vocal is certainly decent, it works a lot better when in tandem with the arsenal of other production fireworks he employs to tactfully elsewhere, as opposed to here, where it becomes overbearing with nothing substantial to play off against. It's something we come to witness again on the album's last track, a weepy sort of tune called 'If I Knew' that attempts to hark back to the great black crooners of the 50s and 60s, but fails to ignite.
The jury's out on 'Show Me', too, which descends fully into reggae; on one hand there's more clever influence picking going on, with the undertone of the track leaning towards such dub greats as King Tubby, yet the saccharine blemishes smeared over the top of it unfortunately diminishes this otherwise admirable move.
Yet taken as an album it's hard not to applaud Bruno Mars: whilst the success of singles like 'Just The Way You Are' have already meant that he's pretty much made all the money he's ever going to need, it's heartening to see a clear willing to try and evolve as an artist, when more of the same would surely have sufficed for another bumper turn around the release cycle for him and his label. Production-wise he's nailed it; Unorthodox Jukebox is a rich pick and mix of different and colour full elements. His lyrics sometime fall short, but a likeably mischievous personality shines through nonetheless, and so on the whole this is a real step up even from the songs that broke him so hugely two years ago.
Simon Jay Catling
Official Site -
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