Mark Ronson ‘Uptown Special’ – Review

15 Feb

Mark Ronson has made a career out of borrowing. His breakthrough album ‘Version’ was a collection of reworked Alt-rock classics. He then produced Amy Winehouse’s ‘Frank’ and was praised for the way he paired Winehouse’s cutting, feminist lyrics with retro arrangements. His next solo album, ‘Record Collection’ was designed to sound like a bitesize history of pop music. Outside of his day job, he recently did a TED talk about sampling, and when not making his own music he is one of the world’s highest paid DJs. It makes sense then that his recent breakthrough single, ‘Uptown Funk’ should borrow so liberally from the Soul and Pop cannon. The squiggly synth is Prince circa 1999. The guitar hook is Nile Rodgers. The Backing vocals are KC and the Sunshine band. The swagger, Sly and the Family Stone. Even the way it’s been marketed and sold screams ‘Get Lucky!’

So listening to a Mark Ronson record is akin to bird watching, in a way. A game of spot the references. This isn’t me writing off his music (you simply CAN’T write off something as addictive as ‘Uptown Funk’), it’s just an observation. Most current pop music borrows, Mark Ronson is just a little more blatant about it. And also a lot better at it. He is capable of writing better hooks than most, better lyrics than most and he is an excellent producer. He synthesizes the influences together in a truly remarkable way – in a way that makes it sound inevitable that Steely Dan guitar should be put over a hip hop beat. These songs aren’t stuck in the past; ‘Daffodils’ may be soaked in ancient reverb, it may feature classic chord changes and clichéd psych lyrics, but it sounds very 2015. It sounds of the moment. It’s just a bit of a shame that the songwriting isn’t as consistent as the production.

‘Uptown Special’ is a less varied album than the eclectic ‘Record Collection’ but less cohesive than ‘Version.’ It lacks the former’s joyful adventure and the later’s strict concept. As a result it feels a bit directionless. Broadly speaking, half the songs fall in the upbeat, funky category along with the now ubiquitous ‘Uptown Funk’, whilst the other half belong to a more dreamy, stoned and forgettable group. It isn’t sequenced in a way that suggests a narrative, a build and rise or any kind of forethought which makes it an uneven record, and a strange one to listen to. The album opens with the oddly positioned, Stevie Wonder featuring ‘First Finale’, and is swiftly followed by the bland ‘Summer Breaking.’ Both of these songs are blown out of memory by tracks three and four, the storming double punch of ‘Feel Right’ and ‘Uptown Funk.’ The contrast in both style and quality underlies the album’s big problem – it’s wildly inconsistent. It doesn’t sustain any mood for long enough to absorb the listener, nor does the songwriting compensate for that fact.

The album has a fair few decent songs but ‘Uptown Funk’, ‘Get Right’ and ‘Daffodils’ aside, it’s short of great songs, which is ultimately the biggest disappointment. You can’t help wishing he’d made more songs in the pop mould and hadn’t bothered with the atmospheric, vaguely interesting but ultimately forgettable, experimental songs. That said, if it were that easy to write twelve ‘Uptown Funk’s everyone would be doing it. Ronson has done well to write one song that is almost universally adored for being catchy, clever, post-modern and tuneful. The song will be remembered over the album, but there’s nothing wrong with that.

6/10

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