Bruno Mars has shifted tone on his new album, writes
Mikael Wood, of the Los Angeles Times.
Bruno Mars is keen to keep pushing and experimenting. Photo
When Bruno Mars made it big a couple of years ago with his
debut, Doo-Wops & Hooligans, the impeccably attired
singer did it with such conclusive style that you never
really thought about the effort he put into his image. In an
era of amateur-driven Idol/Voice/X-Factor pop, here was a guy
who seemed to have appeared fully formed one day: a
pompadoured crooner in the tradition of Frankie Lymon, yet
remade with modern trimmings that appealed to a crowd raised
on X-rated hip-hop and post-everything boy bands.
His music felt just as precision-crafted; Just the Way You
Are and Grenade propelled Mars up the singles
chart, to a million-seller album and earned multiple
nominations for Grammy Awards. It was a level of renown Mars
had been aiming for since he moved to LA nearly a decade ago
to pursue a solo career. Or at least that's the way it
''Becoming famous was never what I wanted to do,'' he
''There's a lot of things that come with fame - it's what
people in the limelight have to do. I'm like, 'Can't I just
write and sing?'.''
Meeting him at his Cape Cod-style home high in the Hollywood
Hills, Mars (27) looked dressed less for success than for
hiding from it. Wearing rumpled jeans and an untucked
T-shirt, his eyes shielded behind silver aviators, the
usually dapper entertainer was due to fly to Sweden the next
morning to promote his new sophomore disc. At the moment,
though, he hardly seemed in the mood to talk himself up. ''If
people are going to have an idea of me,'' he said, ''I'd just
want them to think of a guy who goes in the studio, works
hard and jams out.''
Unorthodox Jukebox, which came out last month, gives a
different impression of the man behind the choreographed
moves, presenting a dramatic vision of love under siege by
fame (Young Girls), fortune (Natalie), and his own tomfoolery
(When I Was Your Man). Even relatively conflict-free tunes
such as Moonshine and Gorilla - in which he invites a ''dirty
little lover'' to bang on his chest like a great ape - exude
a gritty desperation. It's an unexpected shift in tone from
an artist known initially as pop's go-to good guy, an
old-fashioned romantic doling out positive affirmations not
long after he'd first appeared with ingratiating guest spots
on B.o.B.'s Nothin' on You and Travie McCoy's Billionaire.
''I think people will be surprised by it,'' said Philip
Lawrence, one of Mars' partners in his LA-based production
crew, the Smeezingtons.
''But it's not for shock value. It's telling a story, digging
deeper into the feeling of what it means to become a
Speaking in a relaxed manner, far from his frenzied stage
presence, Mars described that experience as ''being thrown to
the wolves and having to deal with it'', and said he wanted
Unorthodox Jukebox to reflect where he is, not where he was.
''I love those [older] songs,'' he said, sunning himself on a
patio as one of his handlers arrived bearing cigarettes and
''I'll stand by them and sing them till the day I die. But an
artist has to stay excited to keep on doing it. And the way
to stay excited is to keep pushing and to keep experimenting.
I feel like I pushed on this record.''
So far he hasn't seen any push back. The album entered the
Billboard album chart at No2, while Locked Out of Heaven, the
disc's lead single has topped the Hot 100 in the US. Reviews
have been strong, too, with high praise from Entertainment
Weekly and Rolling Stone, the latter of which said the album
''makes the competition sound sad and idea-starved by
Indeed, the songs on Unorthodox Jukebox burst with detail,
each a meticulously constructed example of its genre. In
Locked Out of Heaven, Mars and his mates re-create the
sharp-angled reggae-rock of early '80s Police. Treasure is a
lush disco-soul jam. And If I Knew channels Sam Cooke's
The infectious sonics soften the effect of edgy themes such
as the homage to a stripper named Where Your Stacks At in
Money Make Her Smile. And they provide a buoyancy that, as in
so much great pop, lifts Mars above the sometimes-bleak
scenes he describes. (It's worth remembering that the
Smeezingtons were behind the endearingly acidic Cee Lo Green
hit known on the radio as Forget You.) ''One of their great
talents is that they have this fun, light vibe in the
studio,'' said Jeff Bhasker, who along with Mark Ronson
joined the Smeezingtons for production and songwriting work
on Unorthodox Jukebox.
''That allows you to be free, so that you can let that primal
emotion come out without being embarrassed. Then they polish
Part of that polish, added Ronson, was the charisma Mars had
honed since his childhood days as an Elvis impersonator in
Hawaii, where he grew up.
''Everything Bruno adds is what takes it into superstardom,''
said the producer, who recalled being impressed by Mars'
performance in a tribute to Amy Winehouse at the 2011 MTV
Video Music Awards. (Ronson co-produced Winehouse's Back to
Black album.) ''If you put any other singer over Billie Jean
it wouldn't be one of the most impactful songs of all time,
and the same is true with Locked Out of Heaven.''
Whether or not Unorthodox Jukebox lives up to the work
of Michael Jackson, Mars said he longs for the pre-digital
era when acts such as Jackson and Prince retained an air of
mystery. At his house he seemed happy to chat despite the
last-minute tasks he had to accomplish before flying to
Europe. But if his music has grown more intimate, in person
he still evinced some of the reflective opacity endemic to
superstars: What you look for in Mars he'd prefer you find in
''Don't you love it that Prince doesn't use Twitter?'' he
''Don't you think he's somewhere on a unicorn?'' Then he
admitted that he wished he hadn't ''wasted'' a title he used
for his first EP. It was called It's Better If You Don't