Bruno Mars ‘XXIVk Magic’ – Review

30 Nov

It’s been four years since Buno Mars’ last album, a lifetime by modern standards but perhaps not by 1980s pop star standards – which is the yard stick Bruno Mars clearly wants us to use. His homage to the shoulder pad decade extends from minor elements such as fonts, the disc label and running length to more significant ones like production details, instruments and musical motifs. Bruno Mars has always been referential to a fault and here he ups the ante.

It works. ‘XXIVk Magic’ is Mars’ best work to date. His first two albums contained some classic singles but almost nothing else of note. ‘XXIVk Magic’ is his first to work from start to finish as a solid, cohesive album. It skews the recent pop trend for blockbuster running lengths, instead focusing on nine well selected and sequenced songs that flow seamlessly from the uptempo numbers on the first half to the varied, more seductive tunes on the second. Throughout he demonstrates an ambition and songwriting expertise that would have scared Prince and MJ.

It’s not just 80s Pop that Bruno tips his hat to – he loves the 90s just as much. ‘Finesse’ could easily pass for a New Jack Swing song, and boy doesn’t Mars know it. Every sound, melody and instrument sounds painstakingly exacted from an original source. The saving grace with that song is that you can’t exactly pin-point which specific source that is – reminding me more of the genre as a whole than any particular song – so that it comes over as irresistible, escapist fun. When the references are less obscure, the fun is marred somewhat by a constant nodding recognition that any half-knowledgable listener will experience. ‘Versace on the Floor’ exhibits top rate songwriting and production but the keyboard sound is ripped straight from ‘She’s Out of my Life’ (Greg Philengenos even plays the part – say what you want, but Bruno is a slave for detail) while the chorus exactingly mimics key sounds of ‘Sexual Healing’. On the title track (great fun in its own right) he borrows Kendrick Lamar’s exact cadence to the extent that it almost sounds like an impression. On ‘Perm’ He says ‘tonight Matthew, I’m going to be James Brown’ and, damn, he just about pulls it off. This ‘dress up’ pattern repeats on just about every song, sometimes successfully and sometimes less so.

All this explicit homage is more than a bit distracting, and likely to get Mars in some legal trouble (‘Uptown Funk’ has been involved in all kinds of lawsuits since its release’). It’s a shame because often it draws attention away from Mars’ first class songwriting and productions skills. Once or twice his imitations simply highlight the gap in quality between those aforementioned artists and Bruno. As good as he is here, he’s never that good. If he channeled his energies and talents in to something more sonically original, innovative or singular then there is little doubt that he could make a truly classic album.

There’s also the fact that a lot of ‘XXIVk Magic’ can seem frivolous in the context of so much political and social unrest. Bruno Mars is an artist who glorifies and quantifies success; you’re reminded of this by his music videos, artwork and song lyrics. Bruno has what so much of us are without and he isn’t afraid to flaunt it, from the title of the album all the way down. There is a level of boastful bravado that may put some listeners off when a billionaire just used similar tactics to worm his way in to the White House. Bruno Mars is not a songwriter who offers commentary on that particular political moment or engages with the wider world in general – this is not his mandate, and fair enough. But there is a kind of politics at work here anyway. The music of Bruno Mars is on one level joyous escapism – and who doesn’t need half an hour of escape at the moment. But more importantly, there is an argument being made in these upbeat R&B songs. This type of mainstream music has historically brought people of different races, religions and genders together on one dance floor. It offers a positive and inclusive representation of a proud black culture that even Trump voters can get on board with. Bruno offers a genuine common touch that doesn’t discriminate or offend. His music serves to draw us together by reminding us of common aspirations and desires. We can’t afford to dismiss an artist who achieves this with such ease and style.

8/10

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