Back in 2010, Bruno Mars was a suave, well-mannered songwriter, the sort of guy who wrote swooning love ballads that appealed to teenaged girls as well as their moms. “Girl, you’re amazing just the way you are,” he crooned in one song. “I’ll catch a grenade for you,” he promised during another.
Two years later, the fedora-wearing Romeo returns with a very different album. After chasing after his personal Juliet on the previous record, Mr. Mars sounds frustrated and disillusioned on “Unorthodox Jukebox,” a dark album full of R-rated R&B and adults-only pop. He’s still writing love songs, but they’re about the physical act, not the emotional connection, and things get so aggressive during one particular tune, “Gorilla,” that the cops wind up beating down the door.
He’s not making music for kids anymore, in other words, but that doesn’t mean Mr. Mars has forgotten how to dance his way around a bright, sugary hook. He’s nimble and sure-footed throughout “Unorthodox Jukebox,” an album that stays true to its name by taking confident stabs at Michael Jackson’s dance-pop, the Police’s reggae-influenced rock, Prince’s dirty funk and Motown’s classic soul.
Some of the genre exercises go a bit overboard — “Show Me,” a Jamaican jam decorated with gobs of steel drums, sounds as authentically tropical as a Sandals resort full of pasty-white tourists — but the majority of these tunes are short, concise recreations of the music that Mr. Mars keeps on his own jukebox.
There’s no singular personality here, just a composite persona built on pastiche and emulation. What keeps “Unorthodox Jukebox” from sinking into a revivalist swamp is Mr. Mars‘ voice, an expressive tenor that swoops into the rafters one minute and breaks up into a gritty, guttural snarl the next. Yes, he’s singing about some risque stuff, painting a picture of a questionable womanizer who tries to chase away his demons with a Molotov cocktail of nubile girls, sex and drugs. Tune out the lyrics, though, and it’s easy to get swept away by the beauty of that voice.
“If I Knew” sounds like the old Mr. Mars, the one who’d shake your hand with genuine affection, look you in the eye during conversation and have your daughter home by 11 p.m. It closes the album, which almost makes the song feel like an afterthought, but it’s also a reminder of the soulful stuff this guy is capable of writing on a good day.
“Unorthodox Jukebox” is an album for the nighttime, though, a soundtrack for the bitter feelings and dark desires that only come to light after the sun goes down. You can enjoy it … but lock up your daughters first.
Green Day’s third album of 2012 is everything you’d expect it to be: a collection of melodic, spunky punk-pop songs, played with snot-nosed poise by a group of musicians who’ve done the same thing twice this year already. It doesn’t feel phoned-in, but it does feel predictable.
There’s an inevitable sense of diminishing returns. Green Day’s songwriting has always prized accessibility and simplicity over everything else, and after churning out three-chord tunes for two decades, their ideas feel a bit stale. As a result, “Tre!” shines its brightest during the songs that don’t follow the Green Day template, particularly the two tunes that bookend the album.
The album opens with “Brutal Love,” a mid-century throwback with a melody cribbed from Sam Cooke’s “Bring It On Home To Me,” and comes to a sweeping finish with “The Forgotten,” a piano-based power ballad laced with strings. In the middle are a few more oddballs, including a six-minute operatic rock suite and a politically-charged song about the Occupy movement.
Billie Joe Armstrong is an underrated frontman, blessed with a voice that somehow conveys grown-up maturity and adolescent bravado in the same breath. After 20 years in the business, though, he should know when to apply the brakes and slow things down. Green Day spent 2012 driving at top speed, and like buildings flanking a highway, most of these songs fly by, only leaving the briefest of impressions before fading away in the rear view mirror.
By Elaine Donnelly
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