Over the past week, I've had no less than a dozen conversations with assorted "music folk" about Bruno Mars' new Unorthodox Jukebox album, all of which have reached the same conclusion: "It's really good."
Of course, it's important to note that, each time, "good" wasn't emphasized to drive home strength of conviction. Quite the opposite. In fact, if anything, the word carried with it the weight of self-loathing, as if it were an admission of guilt or something. It almost seemed like the speaker couldn't believe they were admitting to actually liking a Bruno Mars album.
Which probably means I should get new friends.
Because 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.
It is very much a producer's album, a sonically adventurous listen that gleefully jumps from genre to genre, wearing its influences less as a millstone and more like a badge of honor. There is the first single, "Locked Out Of Heaven," which Mars admits was his attempt at writing a Police song. The arena-sized "Gorilla," which may very well end up becoming the "Hey Jude" of sex jams. "Natalie," a song about a no-good girl that recalls MJ's "Dirty Diana." I can go on ... "Show Me" lilts on a reggae backbeat that would give hitmakers UB40 pause, "Treasure" is the token Prince tribute, and "I Knew" is a dramatic heartbreak binge that brings to mind Cooke or Bill Withers.
The point is, this time out, Mars goes for greatness, in part because he's earned the right to do so — seriously, try writing something like "Grenade" or "Just the Way You Are" or "F--k You" — but also because his ego wouldn't let him aspire to anything less. The highs are high ("Money Make Her Smile" is certainly one of the year's greatest odes to excess) and the lows incredibly low (just try not to tear up during the shattering ballad "When I Was Your Man"), and somewhere in between, Unorthodox Jukebox manages to become a truly great pop album, not to mention a career-defining achievement.
Mind you, none of that will succeed at making Mars any cooler, though you get the suspicion he could care less. Like he told me last month, with Jukebox is about the "artistry" of crafting classic songs, and there's nothing nerdier on that. Of course, on this album, he and his Smeezingtons collaborators have succeeded in creating an entire album's worth of them ... songs that put him so far ahead of his male pop contemporaries (whoever they are) that he's essentially in his own strata. And if you're still not willing to give yourself over to him because of all that, well, then it's your loss.