Monday, November 21, 2016

album review: '24k magic' by bruno mars

Pop is artificial. But you all knew that - and I bet the majority of you don't even care.

Now the first part of that statement, every good music critic has known for decades, and the great music critics have never cared. Sure, a bunch of us will probably end up gravitating to genres that are branded more 'real', but there's admiration for pop's artifice and construction, the sleekness of its melody and production for capturing the sound of the moment, the fact that it could synthesize emotion so effectively, and at its very best perhaps even capture something transcendent. Now immediately by saying this, I've made the inherent assertion that pop is often much less than more authentic genres, which I don't even believe - hell, two years ago I made a Special Comment in defense of the genre asserting how the assembly of a truly great pop song is often far more difficult than anyone realizes. Otherwise, people would have figured out the formula by now.

But when I think about Bruno Mars, the songwriter who started off behind the scenes before constructing his own pop persona with Doowops & Hooligans in late 2010, some of that rock snob feeling comes back. Especially more recently, there's an odd distance I have to a lot of his material... and if I were to guess, he had an artistic identity with an established sound, and he threw most of it away. Maybe it was bad choices of singles and promotion early on - why 'The Other Side' was never pushed instead of 'The Lazy Song' is beyond human comprehension - but there seemed like a point where Bruno Mars abandoned sincerity. Instead, he put on the shades, leaned into his vast pool of pop knowledge from the past and amped up the showmanship and natural charisma - and what was alarming is that his music for the most part got better - catchier, cooler, he didn't have to care! It's always felt a bit like a facsimile to me, though, which seems to be why most critics have been appreciative but reticent to get closer. But it hasn't stopped the success - the public knows and just hasn't cared that he's shamelessly strip-mining the past for his sound with just enough of a modern flair to keep the audience engaged. Hell, you could argue that's what's burned away some of the lustre for everyone in modern pop - in the aftermath of poptimism where critics are expected to treat pop as art, instead of elevating the ideal too many critics just dulled the illusion and lowered standards to cater to an audience who never cared to dig deeper - and with how little some of the pop artists themselves seem to care in 2016, it's come full circle.

Ugh, this is sounding more melancholic than it should, because Bruno Mars on the surface should be an artist I like a lot more: he's naturally charismatic, he knows pop history, he's an interesting songwriter, his production is often on-point... he can be wildly uneven in terms of song quality, that being my biggest issue with Unorthodox Jukebox, but that can't be it, right? So to finally get some closure here, I decided to check out 24K Magic by Bruno Mars, his big return album four years after his last release and almost two years since the explosion of 'Uptown Funk' with Mark Ronson- so what did we get?

Well, I'm conflicted, that's for damn sure. I gave 24K Magic a lot of listens to truly process it, and with every additional listen I would come to the end wondering if this was all Bruno Mars really had for us. And believe me, that's a big problem when you consider how much of this album is coasting on throwback charm and raw ego - sure, on the surface it can make for some sharp pop songs, but the veneer came off pretty quickly for me, and I didn't end up liking it nearly as much as I wanted. It is probably his most 'even' record in terms of quality - we don't get the wild swings of his past two albums - but I'd also argue we don't get the highs, certainly not any song better than 'The Other Side'. 

But do you want to know the comparison that started to make a lot of sense with Bruno Mars? Pharrell - strange, but think about it. They both started as producers and songwriters before striking out on their own, they both have called back to the same era of R&B, and they both have a certain Teflon element to their style - there's a fine gloss there, not a huge amount of texture, and you get the impression there's a little distance they've manufactured from the audience. Now that point is a little less true for Bruno Mars - he's a much better singer and showman than Pharrell, and I'll make the argument that he's easily the reason you'll want to check this record out if you're curious. He's got personality, a lot of swagger, and he's got the pipes to back it up. But this is also the point where we hit a bit of a snag, because not only does Bruno Mars want to have that devil-may-care swag, there are love songs on this album where we wants to bring back a deeper sincerity... and yeah, he's pretty convincing in that mold, but it only further divides his artistic persona apart even further and emphasizes that artificiality of the split. We have songs like 'Perm' where he's doing a raw, howling James Brown impression, follows it with 'That's What I Like' that sounds imported straight from 2008 R&B with added trap snares, and by the time we hit 'Versace On The Floor' - probably one of the best songs here - he's back in Michael Jackson ballad territory. Not the stuff I go to when I listen to Michael, but I get the appeal - but it highlights a problem that Bruno Mars really only has definition when he's imitating somebody else.

Now to be fair, these are good, sometimes great imitations... but there's a fundamental limitation on how good they can be, and that comes through in the instrumentation and production. I'm not going to deny that Bruno Mars can write catchy, melodically interesting hooks, but one of the reasons that those greats of R&B, soul, and funk actually connect on a visceral level for me is instrumental texture. There was a bite, there were rough edges, there was a sense of risk especially with the greats. I never get a sense of risk with Bruno Mars, that he's actively pushing boundaries in his sound, rather than just cribbing from the past with a modern sheen to it all - a good affectation, but you lose some of the deeper soul and bite to it. Now there are points where he fuses together and expands upon the sound - Mark Ronson did it on 'Uptown Funk', and Bruno Mars does it too on the title track here, grabbing the autotuned talkbox, spiky synth lines, sharp rubbery synthlines, trap-inspired vocal interjections, it sounds like a fusion of 1988, 2008, and 2016, and outside of the breakdown midway through that hurts the momentum, it's a damn good song. And I wish this album was as stylistically adventurous as that song was, because the majority of this album doesn't get there - sorry, but throwing in trap-inspired snares doesn't really impress me, especially when you get the impression there wasn't a lot of live percussion used. That's another thing that threw me off-guard: for as much as this record is trying to flex, it really comes across as cheaper than it should, especially in these wheedling synth tones, that sound pulled from a Casio with slightly higher fidelity than '88. And that baffles me - the rough edges Bruno gets rid of, but he leaves the tones that sound chintzy as all hell? And again, I don't dislike the sound here: with the percussion and low synths, 'Finesse' is basically a new jack swing song and I've hoping that sound would come back, but beyond personal nostalgia Bruno Mars isn't really taking the sound in a new direction. 'Versace On The Floor' is a great love ballad with the rich swell of the keyboards and that great tight beat on the hook... but give this to Michael thirty years ago and he would have made it more interesting. 'Perm' is a funk song from the 70s in the guitars, bass, horn, and live drums, with all of the chimes and overdubbed vocals 'Straight Up And Down' is borderline Boys 2 Men, and that synth on 'Too Good To Say Goodbye'... look, I love 80s-kitsch and power ballads, but it feels like the Vegas version of it - a little flattened, a little overly-staged, and again, no risk.

Now all of this could have been redeemed if the songwriting and lyrics were good... and if you want the most accurate comparison to Pharrell yet, it's in the songwriting - because Bruno Mars and his team aren't exactly good writers. I remember having a conversation on Talking The Charts - the semi-regular podcast I do - and debating TheDoubleAgent about '24K Magic' the song, and how he thought the arrogance of the track was over-the-top and would wear on my nerves. And for as much as I don't entirely agree on that song... it sadly is true about a lot of this album. Not just the ego, but how it's framed - because I do totally get it as a pastiche of those songs thirty or forty years ago and how they could indeed have some stupid or corny lyrics. That was not a trend that had to carry forward - seriously, on 'Perm', a song about dance moves inspired by the perming process, when girls ask Bruno for his autograph, he says, 'gotta do it in my penthouse / that's where I keep my pens'. It's not even a good pun, and the rest of his 'trying to get the girl to smile' routine reminds me way too much of leisure suit pick-up artists that you'd find in Vegas. Hell, 'Calling All My Lovelies' plays in exactly that mold, with him basically threatening to call all the other 'eeshas' in his phone when the girl he wants isn't picking up - honestly, kind of pissy, not a side of Bruno I like, and the interlude message from Hallie Berry makes it seem like a joke that's not all that funny, especially given his delivery. And then when you have the obvious luxury porn on 'That's What I Like', it shows that Bruno's game has a lot of flash, but not much beneath it. And it's not even particularly good game either - 'Straight Up And Down' opens with the line 'girl I bet your momma named you good lookin/ cause you sure look good to me', and 'Finesse' on the hook has 'we're out here dripping in finesse / it don't make sense' - not only is it grammatically incorrect, there's just very little finesse and flair to these lines. That's the other issue - when the writing isn't corny it feels kind of bland, at the very least underwritten. It's why when we get the earnest power ballad to end things on 'Too Good To Say Goodbye', it feels kind of token, not really having enough detail or spark to create an image of those good times beyond residual memories I naturally associate with that sound!

Ugh, all of this review is coming out a lot more negative than I want, because again, the foundations of this sound are good. And if you're looking for a return to an older sound, or you've never had much familiarity with that older sound so this is fresh to you, I can see you liking this on a basic level. If you're expecting that older sound to be revitalized into something fresh or lyrically interesting beyond token concessions to modern production... look, you're not going to get that. Sure, Bruno sounds great, but he has less of a distinct identity than ever, and combined with increasingly shallow recreations of the past in production and lyrics on a record that does feel a little short... I'm feeling a strong 6/10 and only a recommendation if, again, you've been yearning for this sound or have never heard it and like it. I can see people being taken in by the sparkle... but not many sticking around the morning after.

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