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Though still early in his career, Bruno Mars has already proven himself so capable on so many fronts from singing to writing to producing that he’s set the bar incredibly high for himself. The question is can he meet it on “Unorthodox Jukebox,” his sophomore set out Dec. 11.
The multiple Grammy winner is only 27, but as he’s shown on such songs as “Grenade” and “Just The Way You Are,” he has such a sure command of the pop idiom that it seems surprising when he makes a misstep. It’s gratifying that on “Jukebox,” with assistance from Benny Blanco, Paul Epworth, Diplo and Mark Ronson, he makes so few.
Musically, “Unorthodox Jukebox” is a glorious exploration of pop music, full of spritely melodies, layered harmonies, and catchy choruses delivered in Mars’ caramel-dipped voice. It’s lyrically that the album occasionally falls short.
More so than any other current pop male artist, Mars has a sure handle on his influences and he masterfully incorporates them throughout the album, whether it’s Prince on the retro “Treasure” (he even references the Purple One’s “Sexy MF” in the opening) or Otis Redding on the bittersweet tale of regret “If I Knew.” With its shiny, crisp production, current single, the infectious, stuttering “Locked Out Of Heaven,” owes more than a little to Michael Jackson, one of Mars’ musical heroes.
The masterpiece on here is “When I Was Your Man,” a spare, heartbreaking piano ballad that could still be radio fodder decades from now, just as we’ll still listening to Elton John’s hits from the ‘70s on a near daily basis. In fact, the song most closely resembles one of John’s hits of yore crossed with a little Stevie Wonder.
Warning though: with Mars’ rush of fame, clearly there has been some kind of run-ins with women who can politely be described as gold diggers, but Mars is not always feeling gentlemanly.
On the cascading, confessional “Young Girls,” he regrets all the pretty young things he’s yielded to as his fame has risen. He’s not going to get a lot of sympathy for diving, seemingly repeatedly, into the deep end of Temptation Island, where the water is always warm and each bikini is tinier than the next, but he sounds genuinely conflicted when he sings, “I still dream of the simple life boy meets girl, makes her his wife,but love don’t exist when you live like this, that much I know/All these roads steer me wrong, but I still drive them all night long.”
It’s doubtful that these “young wild girls” will be “the death of me,” as he fears, but if he’s as “addicted” as he claims in the song, he may want to have someone checking IDs at the door and handing out condoms.
If he feels captured in a spider web of feminine wiles on “Young Girls” and on the ode to strippers, “Money Make Her Smile” (Hey, male artists: we don’t ever need another song about girls on the pole. Motley Crue had you covered way back when with “Girls, Girls, Girls.”), things turn very dark on “Natalie” a cautionary tale about the protagonist’s plans for revenge on a femme fatale who’s taken all his money. It’s cut from the same cloth as Jackson’s “Billie Jean” and “Dirty Diana” in terms of falling for a conniving woman, but Mars promises a final result that will end with “I’ll spend a lifetime in jail/I’ll be smiling in my cell.” Oh Bruno, it takes two to tango.
And tango he does on “Gorilla,” an R-rated, explicit song about sex, where he wants to make love like an ape. Unless you’re Dian Fossey, I’m not sure a gorilla is the animal most folks wish to emulate when they mate, but there you have it.
With only 10 tracks, there shouldn’t be any filler but there are two songs here that fill that role: “Moonshine,” a mid-tempo cryptic ballad and the reggae-tinged “Show Me” is all swagger about “getting freaky tonight.” That’s all fine, but there should be a little more meat on its bones.
Mars’ pop music is so far above much of what’s played on the radio these days so these quibbles come because it’s clear he can do better. Once his lyrics reach the level of his music—and he gets over his bad girl fixation— there will be truly no stopping him.