The cover photo of a gorilla locked in a tender embrace with a jukebox, looking as if he wants nothing more than to buy it a glass of pinot and take it to an early showing of “Les Miz,” should be a dead giveaway: “Unorthodox Jukebox,” his impeccably made and compulsively listenable sophomore release, is not your mother’s Bruno Mars album.
For one thing, there’s the song “Gorilla,” on which the formerly mild-to-the-point-of-possibly-being-dead Mars maps out a night of romance. It begins with “a body full of liquor with a cocaine kicker” and ends with “you and me/Making love like gorillas.” Anyone who has spent any amount of time watching Animal Planet would not find this much of an inducement, but hear him out: “Gorilla,” for all its awfulness, is just the sort of image shifter Mars needs.
It used to be that there wasn’t much to know about Mars, except that he was very good at singing charming, edgeless, hip-hop-flavored ballads while wearing a variety of jaunty hats. His platinum-plus debut, “Doo-Wops & Hooligans,” earned Mars comparisons to fellow vanilla-flavored Hawaiian balladeer Jack Johnson, mostly because there didn’t seem to be much else to say about him. But a post-success arrest for cocaine possession added subtle bad-boy shadings to Mars’s image, and while “Jukebox” doesn’t take full advantage of the shift, it does kick the tires a little. It’s thematically darker than the breezy “Hooligans,” but musically it hews close to the formula established by its predecessor. Most of its tracks fall into three basic categories:
Moderately Adventurous Pop Songs And Earworm-y Jams: Mars and his production team the Smeezingtons (helped out by a crew that includes Mark Ronson and Diplo) are very, very good at crafting solid pop tracks that would sound equally at home in 1992, or 2002, and adding just enough electro, funk or ’80s arena rock flourishes to make them sound contemporary. “Locked Out of Heaven” is a blatant Police homage, with Mars doing his best impersonation of “So Lonely”-era Sting; “Treasure” is glitterball disco-funk circa Studio 54; “Moonshine” is one of the most sublime Michael Jackson retreads ever.
Sad (Mostly) Piano Ballads: How likable is Mars? On “When I Was Your Man,” he lists — literally lists — all the ways in which he was a terrible boyfriend (never brought flowers or let her dance, was prideful, avoided hand-holding), yet you will spend most of this song feeling upset that he is sad; “If I Knew” is ’60s soul karaoke, masterfully done.
Songs About Tramps, Strippers and Thieves: “Natalie” is history’s most polite gold-digger takedown (“Little miss snake eyes ruined my life,” Mars trills sweetly. “She better sleep with one eye open”); the EDM-happy “Money Make Her Smile” is an easily telegraphed stripper ode. But Mars is too amiable to give these songs any real misogynistic bite, and considering the alternative — an album full of soggy, “Grenade”-type odes to codependency — they’re almost an improvement.
Stewart is a freelance writer.
“Moonshine,” “If I Knew,” “When I Was Your Man.”