Unorthodox Jukebox (out ) doesn’t find Mars dodging genre labels so much as it finds him temporarily smothering himself in one before switching off to another. Working with production heavy hitters including Diplo, Mark Ronson and his crew The Smeezingtons, the songs openly pillage Bruno’s influences, but are slick and carefree enough that they sound fresh coming from him. The throughline (if there is one) would be the lyrics, which channel Keith Sweat and R. Kelly, and leave you with post-sex hair, wanting to take a cold shower.
Lead single “Locked Out of Heaven” is a clear example: “But swimming in your water is something spiritual / I’m born again every time you spend the night / ‘Cause your sex takes me to paradise.” Mars’ tongue-in-cheek lyrical approach is quite successful, as the infectious hooks and cheeky attitude disguise the horndoggery enough to give these songs a home on drive-time radio. Meanwhile, “Gorilla” goes the literal route with more graphic descriptions like “You got your legs up in the sky with the devil in your eyes / Let me hear you say you want it all.” It’s the follow-up to “Our First Time” from his previous album, which delves into (you guessed it) the first time he got intimate with a particular girl. And yet, again, the libidinous lyrics are disguised with epic guitars and Phil Collins-esque heavy drum combinations that could make it strong enough to soundtrack a scene in a drama series.
Like on his debut, Mars isn’t shy about his vintage style, placing him in the same category as Janelle Monae and Raphael Saadiq. But this time, Mars casts a wider net for his old school sounds, with songs like “Treasure,” which is reminiscent of ’70s and ’80s R&B club tracks and perhaps a song that Cee-Lo would love to have written. “Show Me” finds Mars ditching his Hawaii roots for a Jamaican sound. He’s committed enough that the reggae rhythm sounds authentic, but it may sound overly familiar to fans of the genre (the intermittent horns in the bridge become a dead giveaway).
Perhaps the most obvious influence Mars highlights on Unorthodox Jukebox is Michael Jackson. “Natalie” has the same angst and regretful air that “Billie Jean” did. “Moonshine” follows that same thread, but beyond the lyrics Mars is clearly unleashing his inner King of Pop via his vocal affectations and the arrangement. Then there is “Money Make Her Smile,” which has the same military feel of MJ’s 1996 track “They Don’t Really Care About Us,” with a twist at the end that was no doubt a production suggestion by Diplo – taking it into Major Lazer territory.
Similar to other recent efforts by male pop/R&B artists, Unorthodox Jukebox takes listeners on a journey of the initial hookup followed by the honeymoon period and on to the fights and the man’s frustration that follows. Even though we’ve heard these stories before, Mars’ ability to become a chameleon and truly commit to so many sounds and genres makes this album stand out from the rest of the party-sex-fight fare.
The Best Song Wasn’t The Single (Yet): “Treasure” is a track that will get the whole family together. Call it the Cee-Lo Effect: it’ll remind older listeners of music from their youth, while their grandkids groove to it, too, whether or not they know where the blueprint comes from. We needed a song as fun as Earth, Wind & Fire’s “September” in the 21st century.
Pops Like: A trip through Michael Jackson’s discography, including his time with the Jackson 5, with a little bit of The Police and Prince thrown in for good measure.
Best Listened To: At a party while you get down with your significant other, followed by a more “intimate” after-party.
Full Disclosure: Unorthodox Jukebox is a fun and catchy record that you’ll love to sing along to. But if the mere mention of sex makes you cringe or turn all shades of red, you may need to skip over
a few of most of the tracks.
— Emily Tan