Bruno Mars is extremely talented — we’ve known this since he popped up without warning singing the hook on B.o.B‘s “Nothin’ On You,” and fully understood his versatility on his 2010 debut “Doo-Wops & Hooligans.” We also know some of the things Bruno Mars likes: fedoras, monkeys, the music of Sting and the occasional tossed-off expletive, to name a few. But do we know who Bruno Mars is, as a performer, songwriter and person? Despite the accessibility of his music, Mars has not, for better or worse, developed the type of forceful musical personality that bleeds through the work of artists like Rihanna, Eminem and Lady Gaga. Mars croons love songs and heartbreak songs, often in spectacular fashion; but is that enough to make him an endearing — and enduring — pop presence?
The 27-year-old Hawaii native tries to answer that question on “Unorthodox Jukebox,” his highly anticipated sophomore album that succeeds in mixing its safer stylistic choices with its relatively bold ideas. First single “Locked Out Of Heaven,” for instance, remains dizzyingly enjoyable, its 80s influences sported proudly like cub scout badges; yet all the “Oh, YEAH, yeahs!” in the world couldn’t make the song more than a lightweight affair. But when “Heaven” is experienced alongside the uncluttered R&B of “Moonshine” and dance floor sucker-punk “Money Make Her Smile,” the low stakes are easy to forgive. After the success of “Doo-Wops & Hooligans,” Mars should be allowed to cash in with a victory lap, but “Unorthodox Jukebox” is proudly living up to its titular rhyme by prodding at different musical ideas. Even when Mars clumsily swings for the fences, the listener has to commend him for picking up the bat.
Which songs on “Unorthodox Jukebox” are the standouts? Check out Billboard’s track-by-track breakdown of Bruno’s latest.
1. Young Girls – Bruno begins his sophomore campaign with a sleek arrangement and lyrics about recognizing sin while indulging in it. The songwriting instincts and throwback vibe (most clearly established from the backing vocals) remain from “Doo-Wops,” but Mars and the Smeezingtons are further exploring the shaded earnestness from “It Will Rain” here.
2. Locked Out Of Heaven
Yes, it apes the Police. No, that does not matter. “Locked Out Of Heaven” is Mars’ best solo single to date, with the singer-songwriter yelping about fornication as a tossed salad of chopped guitars and vocal exclamations buttress his sumptuous leading-man act. Sometimes, the perfect lead single is hard to find; other times, it walks right up to you and delivers a big, cozy hug.
3. Gorilla – An ambitious arena-rock sex jam that cannot overcome its main lyric: “You and me, baby, making love like gorillas!” The drums and keyboards are nicely overwhelming, but the overall concept floats too far away to make a dent on the listener.
4. Treasure – Riding a groove that recalls the starry-eyed Phoenix single “If I Ever Feel Better,” Mars and co. are all smiles as they deliver a deliberately disco-fied pop whirlwind. One gets the feeling that “Treasure,” with its grand harmonies, classically kooky hooks and slyly sexual undertones, is the musical mode that makes Mars the happiest.
Decidedly retro and caked with cheesy flecks of synthesizer, “Moonshine” finds Mars selling overly simple lines like “Take us to that special place/That place we went the last time, the last time.” Even when Mars, the Smeezingtons, and writing guests Mark Ronson and Miike Snow’s Andrew Wyatt are off their lyrical games, the production is so buttery that the listener can’t help but get another sugar rush.
6. When I Was Your Man
Mars’ heart is tossed on the floor for all to see on this piano ballad, which chronicles a pre-fame heartbreak and will make for a killer lighters-in-the-air moment in concert. Although it’s not quite an Alicia Keys-esque powerhouse, “When I Was Your Man” smartly allows Mars to momentarily remove his fedora and bare his soul.
7. Natalie – Handclaps and canned strings welcome the flip-side of “When I Was Your Man,” with Mars lamenting the hypnotism of a “gold-digging bitch.” The nimble production details — different sounds seem to burst at every punctuation mark — abet a vicious takedown of the titular female.
8. Show Me – Time to head to the islands! A Hawaiian breeze blows through this fun, steel-drum-laden (duh) piece of fluff. It may not be the best “Show Me” of the year — we see you, Usher — but the track makes for a stress-free cut on the back half of the album. It’s gettin’ freaky in this room, room, room!
9. Money Make Her Smile – Mars and the Smeezingtons fully realize their pop capabilities on “Money Make Her Smile,” a creamy blend of rapid-fire chants, breathless percussion and propulsive electronic blips, the latter of which would make the Black Eyed Peas jealous. After spending most of the album toasting songwriting staples, Mars ventures into unexplored territory and scores.
10. If I Knew – “I wouldn’t have done all the things that I have done/If I knew one day you’d come,” Mars and friends sing on this short, sweet kiss-off. Although the “Doo-Wops” texture is once again installed, why look back on old tropes after reaching new heights on the previous track?