Bruno Mars is back to prove he’s still a jack of all musical trades. From classic pop powerhouses to hip-hop-tinged tunes and tear-jerking piano ballads, the multi-talented Grammy winner bends genres in his highly anticipated sophomore album Unorthodox Jukebox, which hit shelves on Dec. 11.
“[I was] not thinking about business or radio or politics, just doing what I love to do — and that’s creating music,” Mars said in a recent interview, according to The Washington Post. “Whether it be a reggae song, rock song, a love song, the main thing was just to, whatever I was feeling, to try to capture that emotion.”
Following in the well-praised footsteps of his platinum-plus debut album, Doo-Wops & Hooligans, Mars knew he had a high standard to meet.
“I feel like you have to constantly keep proving yourself, and you have to constantly keep getting out there and showing them you’re more than just that one song on the radio that’s just playing,” he explained. “And that’s what I had to do the first time around — I had to keep going out there and keep performing live.”
So is Mars’ Unorthodox old-school sound garnering raves from the reviewers? Read what the critics are saying about Mars’ sophomore album:
The cover photo of a gorilla locked in a tender embrace with a jukebox, looking as if he wants nothing more than to buy it a glass of pinot and take it to an early showing of “Les Miz,” should be a dead giveaway: “Unorthodox Jukebox,” his impeccably made and compulsively listenable sophomore release, is not your mother’s Bruno Mars album.
For one thing, there’s the song “Gorilla,” on which the formerly mild-to-the-point-of-possibly-being-dead Mars maps out a night of romance. It begins with “a body full of liquor with a cocaine kicker” and ends with “you and me/Making love like gorillas.”
Anyone who has spent any amount of time watching Animal Planet would not find this much of an inducement, but hear him out: “Gorilla,” for all its awfulness, is just the sort of image shifter Mars needs.
It used to be that there wasn’t much to know about Mars, except that he was very good at singing charming, edgeless, hip-hop-flavored ballads while wearing a variety of jaunty hats. His platinum-plus debut, “Doo-Wops & Hooligans,” earned Mars comparisons to fellow vanilla-flavored Hawaiian balladeer Jack Johnson, mostly because there didn’t seem to be much else to say about him.
But a post-success arrest for cocaine possession added subtle bad-boy shadings to Mars’s image, and while “Jukebox” doesn’t take full advantage of the shift, it does kick the tires a little. It’s thematically darker than the breezy “Hooligans,” but musically it hews close to the formula established by its predecessor. Most of its tracks fall into three basic categories:
Moderately Adventurous Pop Songs And Earworm-y Jams: Mars and his production team the Smeezingtons (helped out by a crew that includes Mark Ronson and Diplo) are very, very good at crafting solid pop tracks that would sound equally at home in 1992, or 2002, and adding just enough electro, funk or ’80s arena rock flourishes to make them sound contemporary.
“Locked Out of Heaven” is a blatant Police homage, with Mars doing his best impersonation of “So Lonely”-era Sting; “Treasure” is glitterball disco-funk circa Studio 54; “Moonshine” is one of the most sublime Michael Jackson retreads ever.
Sad (Mostly) Piano Ballads: How likable is Mars? On “When I Was Your Man,” he lists — literally lists — all the ways in which he was a terrible boyfriend (never brought flowers or let her dance, was prideful, avoided hand-holding), yet you will spend most of this song feeling upset that he is sad; “If I Knew” is ’60s soul karaoke, masterfully done.
Songs About Tramps, Strippers and Thieves: “Natalie” is history’s most polite gold-digger takedown (“Little miss snake eyes ruined my life,” Mars trills sweetly. “She better sleep with one eye open”); the EDM-happy “Money Make Her Smile” is an easily telegraphed stripper ode. But Mars is too amiable to give these songs any real misogynistic bite, and considering the alternative — an album full of soggy, “Grenade”-type odes to codependency — they’re almost an improvement.
“For all its ultra-catchy eclecticism, Unorthodox Jukebox really isn’t all that unorthodox — and when Mars plays it safe, he steps sideways: ‘Young Girls’ is a by-numbers ‘shout-out-to-the-honeys’ belter, and ‘Show Me’ is an undercooked foray into dance-hall reggae…. Mars still plays the sweetheart card well, but he’s proven himself way more interesting as a badass.”
“Jukebox is a very good album indeed, a classically inspired pop release that not only pays homage to the greats (Michael Jackson, Prince and Sam Cooke spring to mind), but also makes a play to be mentioned in the same breath as them.”
“It is not overly concerned with being cool, or contemporary, ditching the radio-pleasing immediacy of Mars’ previous hits to showcase his strengths: a lithe voice, an unerring musical sensibility, and a knack for penning choruses that not only latch onto the ear, but burrow deep inside of it.”
“Similar to other recent efforts by male pop/R&B artists, Unorthodox Jukebox takes listeners on a journey of the initial hookup followed by the honeymoon period and on to the fights and the man’s frustration that follows.”
“Even though we’ve heard these stories before, Mars’ ability to become a chameleon and truly commit to so many sounds and genres makes this album stand out from the rest of the party-sex-fight fare.”
“If anything, the new Unorthodox Jukebox CD clarifies Mars’ chosen role. He’s a guy who sounds most comfortable, and uncompromising, playing to the whole family. To perfect that goal, Mars seems to have chosen a daunting role model for the album — none other than Michael Jackson…”
“That Mars can leap so easily from classic pop crooning to the hip-hop tricks of ‘Money Make Her Smile,’ shows his versatility, his charm and, in the end, his ability to make pop mainstreaming seem like a noble mission.”
“The versatile singer-songwriter and producer blends R&B, reggae, rock, soul, pop and hip-hop, reflecting a musical childhood in Hawaii where exposure to different styles of music was the norm (as a small boy he performed with his parents’ band, doing a pint-size impersonation of Elvis Presley).”
“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…”
“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.”
“There’s nothing wrong with being primarily a stylist, especially when your material is irresistible and your delivery is so engaging. Mars is just 27; the personal heartbreak and hard-won lessons likely will seep into his work eventually. For now, he’ll just keep dialing up the feel-good hits.”
“Bruno Mars doesn’t do low stakes. He is a drama king, a man who thrives on grand statements, soap-opera plotlines and actual-opera melodrama…. From another performer, the bombast might be a deal-breaker, but from Mars – a master song-crafter and a nimble, soulful vocalist – it is the stuff of great pop.”
“Who is this guy? Is he a guy who reminds you of other guys? When you spend your pre-star days riffing on convincing impersonations of both Elvis and Michael Jackson, you’re either about to have an impressively galactic career, or an impressively generic one…”
“He’s no Martian — he’s from Planet Teflon, sticking to no genre as none sticks to him. He’s a timely reminder of the current pop personality graph: you can at once be everywhere and nobody.”
Bruno Mars has come a long way since the release of his debut album Doo-Wops & Hooligans. On his follow up Unorthodox Jukebox, he took a different approach.
This time around, Bruno decided to work with a number of different producers including Jeff Bhasker (Kanye West, Beyonce and fun.) as well as Paul Epworth (Adele) and Mark Ronson (Amy Winehouse, Lily Allen).
It adds up to an interesting mix of influences and styles that Bruno must curate into a cohesive whole. Bruno explained to Rolling Stone the story behind how some of the tracks on his upcoming album came about.
One track, “Moonshine,” unsurprisingly involved some drinking. Another track, “Gorilla” has a different but related source of inspiration.
“It’s about good old animalistic sex,” Mars said. “The song needs a sense of danger. When I was a kid, pop could be dangerous but still massive. Michael Jackson would grab his crotch. Prince would rock assless chaps. With this album, I wanna let loose.”
Meanwhile, his single “Locked Out of Heaven” recalls another well known act: the Police. In an interview with Mix 105.1/Orlando Bruno discussed the impact the band has had on him and one track in particular, “Message In a Bottle.”
“Singing in bars, I sang a lot of Police records growing up,” Mars said. “So I know what it feels like. I want to write a song like that. I know what it feels like to sing a song like ‘Roxanne’ at a show and see people’s faces light up.”
“As a songwriter, you always want to achieve that and do something like that. And these guys are the guys that influenced me and [without them] my music wouldn’t sound the way it sounds.”
But what about his very first musical influence, Elvis Presley? Are his days as an Elvis impersonator through?
“Nah,” Mars laughed. “They’re never gonna be over. As a matter of fact, I’m wearing an Elvis suit right now!”
Unorthodox Jukebox dropped December 11.
Take a look at the video for ‘Locked Out Of Heaven’ below:
- Bruno Mars Unveils Track Listing And Album Artwork For “Unorthodox Jukebox” (923now.cbslocal.com)
- Bruno Mars Mixes Up A Hit With ‘Unorthodox Jukebox’ (huffingtonpost.com)
- Bruno Mars: Unorthodox Jukebox – review (guardian.co.uk)
- Watch Bruno Mars Making ‘Unorthodox Jukebox’ (rollingstone.com)
- Target to Sell Deluxe Edition of Bruno Mars’ Album Unorthodox Jukebox (shoppingblog.com)
- Meet the opinionated Bruno Mars (independent.co.uk)
- Bruno Mars Shares Stories Behind The Songs On ‘Unorthodox Jukebox’ (mix1051.cbslocal.com)