Two years ago, Bruno Mars debuted with Doo Wops And Hooligans, an unassuming set of sweetly sung and smartly written songs that took elements from various genres and combined them all into an appealing pop stew. The album received good reviews, sold strongly, and won Bruno a Grammy.
Unorthodox Jukebox, Bruno’s sophomore effort, follows suit almost to a tee. A compact (10 songs, 35 minutes) but hook-filled album, it firmly establishes Bruno as a top-flight singer and songwriter, the sort of all-purpose, mass-appeal pop musician that Michael Jackson or George Michael was back in the day.
The main difference between the two albums? Production. Although Bruno and his boys (collectively known as The Smeezingtons) handle most of the songwriting/production duties, they do so in association with some of the best in the game: Mark Ronson, Jeff Bhasker (who has worked with Kanye, Alicia Keys and fun.,) Diplo, and reggae producer Super Dups. They add a little bit of extra ear candy (or, as a member of The Time might put it, “chili sauce,”) to the proceedings. Case in point: “Gorilla” shifts easily from spare drum machine ballad to huge pop ballad the way a song like “Purple Rain” did back in the day. It sounds big because of the production, but the bigness doesn’t take away from the fact that it’s a very well-written song, and would be just as good performed solo on a piano or an acoustic guitar.
On Jukebox, Bruno does very well at playing both sides of the good boy/bad boy equation. I made the mistake of reading another review of Jukebox as I was writing this, and I had to side-eye another publication calling some of his less romantic songs the actions of an “icky hater (seriously–are grown men and women writing these reviews?)” There’s always been a slightly sinister edge to Mars’ songwriting, and let’s not forget that the guy wrote Cee-Lo Green’s “Fuck You.” I don’t think he’s aiming to be a heartthrob, or at least not your traditional moon-eyed singer of love songs. Shit, songs like “Young Girls” and “Money Make Her Smile” (both of which are quite enjoyable and not icky in the least) probably come from as real (or more real) a place than the love songs here.
At any rate, the bouncy “Treasure” is a throwback to the mid-Eighties pop/soul that New Edition and The Jets made famous. It’s impossible not to grin while listening, and it’s a testament to the guy’s skills. “Treasure” is followed by “Moonshine,” which is just as ’80s-tastic, but works a significantly darker angle. Think paranoid MJ (probably not hard to do if you’re a Michael fan) and you get the idea. A warning, though…I found myself singing Don Johnson’s “Heartbeat” (the guiltiest of ’80s guilty pleasures) as “Moonshine” was playing. The songs have similar melodies. Frightening.
Not to say Bruno is stuck in the ’80s (although if you’ve read the past paragraph and heard his Police-influenced new single “Locked Out of Heaven,” you might be wondering…) The straight-up dancehall stylings of “Show Me” bring him firmly to the present, although he’s back in retro-mode with the doo wop-influenced closing track “If I Knew.” It doesn’t mind what era the guy might be stuck in, though-the fact of the matter is that he’s nice with his.
Although he’s got a more barbed tongue than his predecessors, Bruno Mars is the latest in a long line of singer/songwriter/producers who create timeless material. Along with his former video co-star Ne-Yo, he’s leading the charge for the renaissance man in pop music. If you love quality lyricism and sing along melodies, Bruno’s jukebox is one that you won’t tire of playing over and over again.