I’ve always admired Bruno Mars songwriting skills, just like I admired Rob Thomas’ a decade ago. I was always telling my wife after hearing a Thomas-penned song on the radio that that dude sure can write some catchy tunes. Maybe not enough to add Matchbox-20 to my physical music collection, but I enjoyed his stuff enough to add some of his mp3s to my electronic collection. And, over the past couple of years, I’ve been saying the same thing about Bruno Mars.
The first time that Mars songwriting skills truly jumped out at me was his Cee Lo Green hit “Forget You” (or was it “F@$k You”?). That song took a simple yet classic Motown melody and rhythm and updated it with some 21st century hip hop attitude to concoct a classic hit song. Then, last year, his collaboration with über-producer Mark Ronson to create yet another hit song for the ages in the obvious Time-influence “Uptown Funk”. So, I was going to keep my ears open to his new stuff that was recently released, titled XXIV-K Magic.
A month or so ago, Mars was the special guest on the Saturday Night Live episode hosted by Emily Blunt. When Bruno performed the title song from the album, I was blown away. He was no longer mining the Glee-style pop/dance stuff of his first two albums but appeared to be diving into a little more Eighties-styled funk, alá Rick James or my beloved Time. He and his band was scolding hot on the show that I thought Studio 8-H might burn down to a follow-up request of some George Clinton. I thought that Bruno’s work may actually be maturing.
And, sure enough, the former childhood Elvis Presley impersonator has finally found his calling as the purveyor of some 21st century revival of Eighties pop/R&B/funk. No, he has not reached Michael Jackson or Prince or Madonna levels of songwriting, but he is drinking from the same pool of inspiration. Throughout the new album, Mars is giving his fans a little Lionel Richie ballad here, an Atlantic Starr love song there and a burning-down-the-disco Jackson/Madonna/Bee Gees numbers in a couple of places. And he closes the album with a majestic ballad that sounds as if Quincy Jones came in and gave him an old ballad that Michael Jackson and Barry Gibb had co-written.
Now, by no means is this album on the level of Lady Gaga’s, or the recent releases of some of the stalwarts of the past have delivered this year, but Bruno Mars IS growing up and his songwriting is reflecting that growth. Perhaps, one day Mars will transcend his musical heroes and influences and take his place among the immortals of pop music. As my older son would say, “Only time will tell.”