Album Review: Bruno Mars ‘Unorthodox Jukebox’

Bruno Mars is a different sort of pop star. It’s hard to define him strictly as being a “pop star” because he seems to command a higher level of respect, even though that is exactly what he is. It may only be an illusion then, brought on by his penchant to be a bit different from the rest– in a way much more subtle than, say, Lady Gaga, and I don’t find myself overly concerned with understanding a great artistic intent (or lack thereof) in this case. While he does command more respect than your typical Top 40 artist, it’s not because he sets himself apart from them. Rather than create a stark contrast between he and they, which could reveal them to be inferior, his music almost seems to validate his contemporaries on the whole.

He has the ability to write songs that could easily seem trite if they were attributed to another artist. The album opens with “Young Girls”, a frank confession of personal weakness for college chicks, which at its philosophical core is not dissimilar to any number of songs about dicks and where to stick them. It’s a bit of a character flaw, which Bruno understands but doesn’t seem particularly tormented by. In fact, he sort of embraces the idea that he is going to waste many years yet on that pursuit. It’s the kind of song that few could pull off without seeming crass, or even misogynistic, but that never seems to be a problem on Unorthodox Jukebox.

The first single follows, “Locked Out of Heaven”, which showcases some of Bruno Mars’ unique style while being about ostensibly the same topic as the opener, albeit without the specificity to age. What I am basically learning here is that Bruno Mars is one horny son of a bitch, but he’s okay with it, and you should be too if you’re going to buy the record or tickets to one of his shows. He wants you to know that he’s a bit of a bastard. For pop music, this is neither overly careful nor does it try too hard to appear edgy. It’s honest, and his voice is laden with emotion. It’s just good music.

Parts of the album have a funk throwback style, heavy 70s and 80s influence, and sometimes he’ll go back even earlier. It always feels current though, which is a neat trick and something that really helps to make Mars stand apart from the rest in his genre. It’s not a gimmick, but again, it feels honest.

Often a musician faces a choice to either create the music that defines them, their moments and experiences, or to go for a more commercially viable sound and image. To do the latter, they have to sacrifice some of what got them started making music in the first place, and it’s a delicate balance in the music business to achieve success while still being able to hold one’s head high. Bruno Mars is a natural pop star because his sound and his image both appear to be completely organic.

“Gorilla” gets a bit darker, as he sings of drug use and what I am going to term slightly rough sex. Nothing you wouldn’t consider, but your mother would be mortified. A likely single, and a song that calls to question exactly what Bruno’s problems with women are. Listening to this one I have trouble understanding it at all, if he’s content with his own behavior, because about the only problem I can see for Bruno Mars with the opposite sex is having too many willing participants lined up at the door. The only conclusion then has to be that he is not content with his own behavior.

“Moonshine” drives home the idea that sex is an addiction for Mars, and “When I Was Your Man” is a regretful look back on squandered love. As self-deprecating as all of this may seem, and as much as the focus of the album looks overwhelmingly negative on paper, it never gets particularly weepy, or very negative at all. In fact, he always seems to find a positive slant, always learns a lesson and attempts to move forward. Except, maybe, when it comes to young girls, which is a mistake he would like to keep making for some time yet. It’s a positive record on the whole.

Unorthodox Jukebox is a dark and honest album with a candy coating that makes it easy to swallow. It’s full of soul, and never dreary in spite of its refusal to back down from harsh subject matter and the often complicated reality of adult relationships. It’s a great and surprisingly balanced record, and I really don’t have one bad thing to say about it.

Release Date: December 7, 2012
Image Courtesy of Atlantic Records

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