Friday, June 28, 2019

album review: 'late night feelings' by mark ronson

Am I the only one who feels like it's been years since 'Uptown Funk'? And yes, that song originally debuted in 2014, I get that it's been a while, but the pop landscape that was once open to the shamelessly retro, classicist approach Mark Ronson brought to pop music has mutated so much thanks to the onset of trap and the collapse of so many acts seem like they've left the producer and singer-songwriter in a weird place - it feels so much longer than it's actually been. Hell, if you want evidence of that, look at how it seemed like radio was anemic towards 'Nothing Breaks Like A Heart', a genuinely terrific Miley Cyrus collaboration that was one of the best songs she's made this decade!

So in a way I'm not surprised that it seems like Late Night Feelings doesn't have the buzz that greeted Uptown Special in early 2015, but I still wanted to cover it, if only so I could have an excuse to give 'Nothing Breaks Like A Heart' more attention and exposure. And Ronson still has the sort of clout to pull acts as varied as Alicia Keys, Angel Olsen, and Lykke Li along with Miley. And while I wasn't expecting a smash in the same way as 'Uptown Funk', I did have high hopes in terms of pure craftsmanship, so what did we get from Late Night Feelings?

So reviews of projects like this are a little tricky, mostly because it's best to hear it as a compilation, rather than see some sort of overarching theme or narrative. But that's not saying it's not consistent - in fact, I'd argue Late Night Feelings is damn near single-minded in its chorus of smoky, emotionally complicated relationship songs that call upon a slightly older R&B and pop palette, while still feeling modern in their framing and delivery. In fact, I was actually quite surprised how much I enjoyed it in terms of pure pop construction, and while I will not call this album great, it delivered enough solid tunes to put it in quality territory, and I'm a little surprised how much it seems like people aren't paying attention.

But if I want to highlight a weakness right out of the gate, it does come somewhat in the writing - not that it's precisely bad, but even for pop it can feel a bit simplistic. The stories are told more through the emotionality of the singers than intricate writing, and that can start to run thin if the majority of the song sit in the same emotional territory, let alone have the same topic. And again, the primary emotion is lovestruck longing for all of the wrong reasons, mostly for guys who are emotionally unavailable or toxic, and what I appreciate is that even from artists you wouldn't otherwise expect self-awareness, you get the insight that they know in their head this is probably a bad idea, their heart is looking in a different direction. The big pleasant surprise for me here came with Camila Cabello on 'Find U Again' with lines like 'there's a you-shaped space in my bed / always you-shaped thoughts inside my head', with the nice double entendre in the second line on a verse implying if she went back it'd be a regression for her, especially with the main line on the hook implying she'll never find this guy again. And that's when you get the fractured frustration of 'Don't Leave Me Lonely' with newcomer YEBBA or the bitter disappointment of Miley on 'Nothing Breaks Like A Heart', probably still the album highlight but she has competition. And then Angel Olsen shows up for 'True Blue', and while she has the classically trained poise to seize the audience's attention, I couldn't help but think that this is not quite as strong as 'Stranger's Kiss' with Alex Cameron - but then again, what is! Then there's Lykke Li really returning to form with great multi-tracking and the messy emotionality where there's still real sensuality - far better than her pop experiment last year - and then there's Ilsey on the closing track 'Spinning', surrounded in a thick cushion of distancing autotune where she admits her own fault in splintering this relationship, and the grief comes through effectively. That said, when this album goes down its detours, it does hit some serious skids, most notably 'Truth' with Alicia Keys and The Last Artful, Dodgr that's trying to go for a more agitated, conscious R&B vibe and it doesn't match with anything - it's a bizarre pivot, and it could have easily been excised.

But the next two issues comes in structure and sound, and let's get this out of the way now: if you're expecting the blatant retro-soul or funk tones that have characterized Ronson's previous projects, you'll only hear them in with the occasional questionable synth tone, percussion that doesn't quite have the body it should, or tight bass rollick, and you could make the argument this is his most anonymous album to date in terms of what he contributes. Indeed, it wouldn't be hard to see most of these cuts serve as album staples or singles for their main singer, with this project bound more together on theme than sound. But I'd still argue that's not quite the case, because while you might be able to slot these songs into conventional mainstream pop, Ronson does a lot here that puts him in a higher tier of producers making those sounds. For one, he fleshes out the melody behind our frontwomen consistently: they're not just given a spare backdrop of reverb and percussion, there's nearly always a tune either carried off the pulsating groove like in the funkier guitars off 'Find U Again', the 80s-inspired sizzle and gravitas of 'True Blue', or the wells of pianos playing off the textured knock of 'Don't Leave Me Lonely' to the flagrant pop country bombast of 'Nothing Breaks Like A Heart'. And while I'm not wild about the watery minor piano tones complimenting Diane Gordon on 'Why Hide', those slightly tinny guitars next to Lykke Li with the richer backdrop on '2 AM' sounds phenomenal, and when this project has to get minimalist on 'Spinning' to end things off, it works. On the flip side, while 'Truth' is probably the most jarring cut, there are also places where the groove either feels a bit too fidgety and quick like the title track or the slightly overmixed funk percussion on 'Pieces Of Us' with King Princess that seems missing its explosive payoff, or where the song just feels unfocused and unfinished, like how 'When U Went Away' feels like an interlude of horn-accented atmospherics and it somehow gets worse on 'Knock Knock Knock' with YEBBA's vocal layering, which is more squawking and grating off the groove and it's startling how little funk it has, especially given its length.

But as a whole, if you're expecting the sort of world-conquering song that was 'Uptown Funk' on this thing... well, I'd argue 'Nothing Breaks Like A Heart' could have put up a worthy fight if positioned and marketed properly and not released in very late 2018 to get killed by the holiday season - yes, I know 'Uptown Funk' was released in a similar seasonal window, the two songs convey very different emotions and pop was in a very different place! But I do think this project has been underappreciated and overlooked, and it absolutely gets much stronger in its second half. And while I wouldn't say there's a ton of dimensionality or anything you haven't heard much before here, I'm happy that Mark Ronson is moving away from pure retro pastiche into something a little more interesting but just as tuneful and well-produced. As such, 7/10, definitely recommended, and if there was any good in this world, a few of these songs might get a boost from the album to push the Hot 100 - I severely doubt it, but we'll have to see. In the mean time, check it out.

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