By the end of Unorthodox Jukebox, you want to want to grab Bruno Mars by his stocky shoulders, look him square in the eye and ask, “Who hurt you?” Was it one of the “bright-eyed honeys” of the somber—yet somehow sunny—single “Young Girls,” the gorgeous ladies who repeatedly drive the Hawaiian crooner to ruin? Or maybe it’s the subject of the spiteful “Natalie,” a parasitic flame who swindles Bruno out of all his coin, scorning him to the point of murderous fantasies. Opportunistic women are sprinkled throughout Mars’ schizophrenic sophomore album, a project threaded together by the singer’s own appropriation of his predecessors.
Each song on the 35-minute short is like a slide in a toy View-Master, illuminating a different sonic aesthetic yet still heard through the scopes of Bruno’s saccharine falsetto. Mostly, it’s just the 27-year-old revivalist playing dress up. His musical heroes’ influences are all over this thing. There’s the new wave rock sound of lead single “Locked Out of Heaven” that channels The Police. Michael Jackson’s hologram glows brightly amid the ’80s pop drama of the escapist “Moonshine,” while the aforementioned “Natalie,” with its tribal, Kanye-lite drums, is easily offspring to “Dirty Diana,” no paternity test needed. The steel drum-powered island jam “Show Me” is reggae in the same way as Sean Kingston’s “Beautiful Girls”; it’s a flirty, fun record that sticks out just as much as any other track here (The Diplo-produced “Money Make Her Smile” has a Baltimore club music breakdown). Dissociation is Jukebox‘s binding factor.
Mars’ mighty pen completes 2012’s triumvirate of gifted male singer/songwriters, joining Miguel and Frank Ocean atop the writer’s block. He’s more confectionary than his peers, especially over the mid-tempo, flattering “Treasure,” an esteem booster sugary enough to cause cavities. But Bruno’s writing excels when biting his lip on the album standout, “Gorilla,” a primal lovemaking romp that erases his romanticist image of past hits like “Just The Way You Are.” He sings: “I got a fistful of your hair/but you don’t look like you’re scared/you just smile and tell me daddy it’s yours/Because you know how I like it, you’s a dirty little lover.” He hits his stride when stripping down his melodies for sparse, piano-driven ballads, as heard on “When I Was Your Man,” a remorseful, piano-laced dedication to the one who got away: “I should’ve brought you flowers, and held your hand/Should’ve gave you all my hours, when I had the chance/Take you to every party because all you wanted to do was dance/Now my baby’s dancing, but she’s dancing with another man.”
Bruno’s strong vocals and irresistible, gimmick-free hooks steer his retro second album to modern-day pop monster. Unorthodox Jukebox is a time-trekking scavenger hunt of sounds that manages to propel Mr. Mars forward, all while staring about-face. —John Kennedy (@youngjfk)