For an artist who owes much to female fans when it comes to his wealth and fame, Bruno Mars has a less than charitable attitude to the fairer sex. Or at least it seems so on Unorthodox Jukebox, his curiously conflicted second album.
Since hurtling on to the US charts three years ago, the Hawaiian crooner has been cast as a sort of yin to Chris Brown's yang, a performer with similar vocal gifts but a sunnier, more family-friendly image. The sweetness, however, seems to have gone a little sour since his 2010 debut, Doo-Wops and Hooligans.
The very first line of the album's catchy opener, Young Girls, finds Mars recalling ruefully that "I spent all my money, on a big old fancy car, for these bright-eyed honeys, oh yeah, you know who you are". The femme fatale Natalie "ran away with all my money, and she did it for fun", while Money Make Her Smile is fairly self-explanatory. He clearly looks for love in all the wrong places.
Mars began his career impersonating Elvis and retains traits of a tribute act, while also striving for individuality. Unorthodox Jukebox "is me going into the studio and recording and writing whatever I want," he insisted recently. "This album represents my freedom."
His acclaimed production trio, The Smeezingtons, were the principal producers, but some firmer direction from elsewhere might have yielded more satisfying results.
The singer has always been open about his influences, but makes them too explicit here, and his songwriting suffers by comparison with the classics. The results occasionally border on pastiche.
Locked Out of Heaven is a clear homage to The Police, but lacks their gift for an innovative chorus. Michael Jackson was another of his early impersonations and he continues to throw in a familiar grunt on occasion; the aforementioned I've-been-wronged laments are pale attempts at a Billie Jean or Dirty Diana, however, while his aggressive posturing on Gorilla is about as believable as when Jackson tried to do it. And though the closer, If I Knew, is an authentic-sounding slice of 1960s soul, it's all too similar to the Smokey Robinson classic Who's Lovin' You.
Unorthodox Jukebox is by no means a disaster, and at under 35 minutes it whistles past too quickly to outstay its welcome. But then the brevity also fuels the suspicion that the talented and in-demand Mars could have spent a little less time producing and performing on other people's records, and given a little more love to his own.