Other than one not insignificant bump in the road from a September arrest in Las Vegas for cocaine possession, it's been a pretty sweet year for pop singer/songwriter/producer Bruno Mars. Born Peter Gene Hernandez in Hawaii, Mars co-wrote, co-produced, and sang on massive summer hits "Nothin' On You" and "Billionaire" (by B.o.B. and Travie McCoy, respectively), co-wrote one of the biggest songs of the year with Cee Lo Green's "Fuck You", released his critically and commercially well-received debut album (Doo-Wops & Hooligans) that landed a number one single ("Just The Way You Are") in multiple countries and has a follow-up ("Grenade") headed in the same direction, and received seven Grammy nominations. So how was your 2010?
I first noticed Mars a few weeks back on Saturday Night Live, with his two song performance managing to capture my attention. I DVR SNL most weeks, but find little, both musically and comically, that doesn't have me going heavy on my remote's "FF" button. Before I'd heard a note, it was Mars' live presentation that gave me pause. The singer and his guitarist, bassist, and drummer were dressed in identical suits with skinny ties...throw in a pompadour hair style on Mars and it successfully completed the 50's doo-wop group visual homage. Add in the fact that Mars also played guitar, a rarity for an artist of colour (which sounds so bloody un-PC, but it's just a fact). Those refreshing visual elements, combined with well-executed renditions of his two aforementioned chart-topping singles, led me to check out his debut, which is an unabashedly commercial collection of songs that dips its feet into numerous musical genres, including pop, hip hop, rock, reggae, r & b, and soul.
Mars blows his wad early, with the two opening tracks on the album comprising its best material: "Grenade" mixes a marching floor tom drum beat with heavy keyboards and Mars' smooth vocal style, augmented by some tasteful Motown-style background vocals, and "Just The Way You Are" takes much of the same formula, speeds up the tempo a little, and ends up with a very different sounding song, which I'd have to call one of the best pop tunes I've heard this year. About half of the rest of the album's songs (there are ten in total) fall somewhere within the "very good" level of quality: "Runaway Baby" is a high energy 60's throwback, "Marry You" also borrows liberally from that decade with its highly melodic song structure (love the use of the wedding bells, too), "Talking To The Moon" is a solid ballad that probably best shows off Mars' impressive vocal ability, and then there's the album's final track, "The Other Side". It originally appeared back in May on Mars' It's Better If You Don't Understand EP, along with a couple of other songs that appear on Doo-Wops & Hooligans. The song (featuring Green, who it actually sounds like it was written for, and B.o.B.), while strong, feels somewhat out of step with the rest of the tracks, which is probably because it's the most modern sounding one of the bunch. It was written much earlier than most of the songs on his full-length player and, according to Wikipedia, has eleven (!) songwriters accredited to it (three of those names are Mars, Philip Lawrence, and Ari Levine, who make up the unfortunately named songwriting/producing team The Smeezingtons). How eleven people are needed to write a 3:47 song is beyond my scope of comprehension, I must admit.
At a lean 35 minute running time and ten songs, there's little room for filler, but Doo-Wops & Hooligans has its share. Most glaring is the atrocious "Our First Time", which is the kind of slowed down/sexed up Usher and R. Kelly-style r & b that has me running screaming in the opposite direction. "The Lazy Song", which is almost oppressively lightweight, lyrically celebrates the pleasures of lounging around doing nothing, set to an instantly forgettable laid back musical accompaniment that wouldn't seem out of place on a (*shudder*) Jack Johnson or Jason Mraz album. "Liquor Store Blues" isn't much better, amping up the reggae sound touched on during the aforementioned track and getting a credibility assist from Bob Marley's son, Damian. The result just isn't my cup of tea, though. "Count On Me" is another slight number that borrows again from Mraz and Mars' fellow countryman Israel Kamakawiwo'le, with its stripped down acoustic guitar and light percussion. The nice string arrangement on the song's back half does redeem things, but only slightly.
Mars is a hugely talented young artist (did I mention he also played most of the instruments on Doo-Wops & Hooligans?) who needs to refine his musical focus a little and stick to his obvious strengths, plus his lyrics need a lot of work. Even the album's potent songs are marred by overearnest, soppy wordcraft that one expects will improve as Mars matures.