REVIEW: Bruno Mars – Unorthodox Jukebox

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Artist: Bruno Mars
Album: Unorthodox Jukebox
Genre: Pop, r’n’b
Label: Atlantic

Forgive me for this, but swoon. ‘Swoon’ is the only word I can think of to sum up this album. Jo March once dramatically fell from a carriage crying, “If only I were the swooning type,” and I’ve long agreed with her – at least until Bruno Mars came along. The diminutive Hawaiian has a way with his music. It’s quite ridiculous really, because he’s not doing anything new. He apes the crooners of yesteryear with a sleeker brand of contemporary pop, mixing in isolated samples of other genres to pad it out as something deeper. He does that uniquely boy band feint of mixing sweetly innocent odes and dashingly romantic ballads with pure filth, dressing it up in something shiny and undemanding and inoffensive with a catchy beat and beaming smile. But my stars, it works. It works sublimely. Doo-Wops and Hooligans was a charming if inconsistent album, mixing enthralling numbers with more itty-bitty fare but Unorthodox Jukebox sees the singer let loose, and the results are superb.

It’s very easy to write about Mars through rose-tinted specs. Even when he’s using the works of generations past to elevate his music, he does it with such skill and enthusiasm that it becomes infectious. He has a boyish, exuberant charm in the way he plays and laces his songs with just enough rugged charisma to distance them from the ranks of the manufactured and the plastic. Further, the guy is genuinely talented. His voice is terrific and he’s an avid and capable musician, bringing much in the way of sincerity to his music. Unorthodox Jukebox represents a more confident, mature Mars, someone equally in tune with his romanticised debut and at the same time unafraid to embrace something more daring. He sweeps through a huge range of genres with almost faultless results and injects something rawer, grittier and urbanised to his sound. The album is derivative, and a lot of people will hate that, but rarely has something so plainly inspired by the greats of old sounded so delicious.

There is something of the breezy, sunny listening of the Jackson 5’s music to “Treasure.” Its easy rhythm lets it strut along amiably, a more synthetic but accessible take on the love ode that’s become his signature. It may be a little weak on the catchiness front, but it’s inherently likeable. The most effective mixing of sounds however is easily “Locked Out of Heaven.” It’s addictive, and it’s terrific. It may take a play or two but once you’re hooked, you’ll be inextricably bound.  This is a roaring, climactic piece of rhythm and percussion with an infectious beat and a towering central performance. It reworks its throwback sound admirably for the contemporary age – there are many pop artists out there making catchy tunes but few manage to imbue them with such seamless blends of pop, funk, soul, and r’n’b. Mars follows this with “Gorilla,” another of the album’s strongest tracks. A devilishly seductive and beguiling number, it grows from murky beginnings to become sumptuous and engrossing. Its colossal, arching chorus all but swallows the listener whole, especially when contrasted with the minimal sound of the verses. The thud of percussion is almost shocking when it intervenes.

“Moonshine” is another song worthy of particular mention. The dark horse of the record, it’s methodical and focused; atmospheric and removed in execution. It’s stark and involving, the spellbound samples pitching their own fantasy world and wrapping it irretrievably about you. Mars has made ample progress in his grainier offerings and their augmented presence on Unorthodox Jukebox gives it a constant and consistent flair that was lacking from his debut. However, a series of exquisite slower numbers make a strong argument for the supremacy of his ballads. “Young Girls” is a soapy, wistful song designed to maximise his tender-hearted vocals. It makes an early play for the evocative and spine-tingling and with its crisp, fresh instruments becomes triumphant and affecting. “When I Was Your Man” is essentially “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word” in this season’s clothes but it’s just far too pretty to resist. I spent last week waxing lyrical about pianos in my Alicia Keys review and on this, Mars makes deft use of the instrument for an earthy, organic track about the loss of a lover. There’s something in his voice that seems made for these moments. He shifts from energetic to wounded to vulnerable and the range is delightful, never sounding less than consumed and enraptured with his subject.

Honestly, my only real issue with Unorthodox Jukebox is that it’s too damned short. It’s over almost as soon as it begins. I know for some people it might seem too indulgent and cheesy and even a bit pastiche but for the rest of us, feck it, he’s dreamy.

SCORE: 9/10
Review written by Grace Duffy

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