Bruno Mars has become so known in recent years as a brilliant pastiche artist that it’s easy to forget that when he first came on the scene, he had an extremely distinctive style of his own. He didn’t abandon it immediately after his first album, either; his second album featured a mix of pastiche and works in his own style, and even the most overt pastiche tracks (such as “Locked Out of Heaven” or “Treasure”), had hints of his original style about them.
But then came the runaway success of “Uptown Funk”, and now his most recent album, 24k Magic, seems to consist entirely of pure pastiche, with little or no reference to the distinguishing traits of his early work. It is, in fact, essentially an album-length version of “Uptown Funk”. Now, I think one album of this is acceptable, but I hope he doesn’t try to continue in this vein indefinitely.
Pastiche, after all, by its very definition, doesn’t stretch, and while there are artists who can basically release the same song over and over again (and indeed, even some who should), Mars is too talented to be reduced to that kind of thing. So while I appreciate his attempt to expand on the success of “Uptown Funk”, I hope that for his next project he returns to the style he premiered on this record, which has far more potential to accommodate artistic growth.
That style is defined primarily by its hyperemotionalism…the happy songs are not just happy, but euphoric and blissful, while the darker songs have a terrifying, almost operatic intensity to them. Nowhere is that more obvious than on the album’s first track and second single, “Grenade”. A terrifying stalker ballad with crazed lyrics and a sort of pop-operatic vocal style, this actually came out a few months before Adele released “Rolling in the Deep” and was thus one of the first signs of the dramatic intensity that would dominate much of Pop music in 2011.
Other examples of the album’s more dramatic side include the despairing Reggae drinking song “Liquor Store Blues”, the enticing yet threatening seduction song “The Other Side”, the explosive ‘warning song’ “Runaway Baby”, and the gorgeous, melancholy “Talking to the Moon” (which became very popular in Brazil, of all places, after being used as the theme song to a popular Brazilian television program). But lest you think the album is a heavy and dark one, there are an equal number of soaring expressions of sheer bliss.
The first single, “Just the Way You Are”, is one of the most romantic Pop songs of the decade, and it seemed like a revelation in the era of thuggish sex jams into which this album initially debuted. “Our First Time” resembles a smoother, more confident R&B incarnation of John Mayer’s “Your Body is a Wonderland”, or perhaps Mars’ own later track “Versace on the Floor” but with actual feelings. “Marry You”, with its giddy declaration of devil-may-care euphoria, actually managed to become a Top Forty hit in the Glee cover version. And the gentle acoustic ballad “Count on Me” is adorably sweet, sounding almost like a classic-era Sesame Street song. I don’t know what Bruno Mars is actually like in real life, but these songs paint him as the perfect person to be in love with.
There’s only one real dud on this album, and it’s admittedly a pretty severe one…the inane acoustic ‘comedy’ track “The Lazy Song”. It seems that Mars likes to periodically blow off steam by writing these kinds of stupid novelty songs (in addition to this one, there’s “Gorilla” on his second album, as well as that “Bow Chicka Wow Wow” song he wrote for Mike Posner). But given how consistent the entire rest of his output is, I think we can forgive him for amusing himself in this fashion from time to time, even if he is amusing absolutely no-one else in the process.
Overall, this is one of the finest albums of 2010, and one of surprisingly few of those albums to produce any hits on the Pop charts (2010 had a fair number of classic albums in the Indie scene, but it wasn’t what you’d call a ‘good year’ for Pop music). Moreover, it still holds up today, and is a reminder that Bruno Mars is more than just a gifted musical chameleon, and has a style of his own that’s just waiting for him to take it up again.