Album Of The Week: Mark Ronson Uptown Special
There are very few pop stars with backstories as epic and strange as that of Mark Ronson. Where do you start with this guy? Son of a real estate mogul. Stepson of the guitarist from Foreigner. Brother of Samantha Ronson, the DJ who famously dated Lindsay Lohan when she was in her extreme tabloid-bait phase. Supposedly co-wrote the Thundercats theme song (presumably the “Thunder-Thunder-Thunder-Thunder-Cats!” part) when he was eight years old. As a DJ, became enough of a staple on New York’s rap scene that Jay-Z shouted him out on the catchiest deep cut from Vol. 3. Threw Jack White and Freeway on a track together on his debut album, which was not the sort of thing people were doing in 2003. Was briefly engaged to Rashida Jones. Co-produced Amy Winehouse’s Back To Black. That’s a life! But despite all that, Ronson’s never been exactly what you’d call a famous person, at least not on this side of the Atlantic. Part of that is simply because he doesn’t sing. But also, he’s also a born studio rat, the type of background figure who spends days laboring over chord changes but who doesn’t necessarily command all the attention when he walks into a room. And that insular sense of music-nerd vision isn’t just what led Ronson to make the new Uptown Special, his fourth album as a solo artist and easily his best. It’s what’s leading him to become, in some sense, a full-on pop star right now.
We need to talk for a minute about “Uptown Funk,” the #1 song in the country even if much of the country couldn’t pick Ronson out of a police lineup. “Uptown Funk” is great! It’s the best American #1 we’ve had in more than a year, easily, and maybe much more. The song is, of course, straight-up pastiche. In fact, it’s a pastiche of a pastiche, a ’10s pop star and his studio-rat buddy imitating Price-backed ’80s funkateers Morris Day & The Time, who were doing their own imitation of James Brown and his early-’60s chitlin-circuit contemporaries. That’s fine; it’s a great copy. Even though it’s got some serious production sparkle working for it, someone (I forget who) rightly pointed out on Twitter that you could easily mistake it for a lost anonymous classic from a Numero Group compilation. Your aunt might not realize it’s a Mark Ronson song, and that’s fine. She probably thinks it’s a Bruno Mars song, and that’s what it is in a lot of ways. Mars sang the song, co-wrote it, co-directed the (awesome) video, played drums (very well) on it, came up with the “do-do-do” vocal bassline thing. Your aunt might only recognize Ronson as the doofy white guy lingering in the background in the video. When Mars and Ronson show up to do the song on SNL or The Voice, Mars and his cartoonish backing singers hold center stage while Ronson, tucked off to the side, plays guitar. But Ronson clearly deserves some credit; after all, Mars has never sounded anywhere near this cool before. And anyway, it doesn’t really matter who made “Uptown Funk”; it’s just great to have it out in the world. It takes these old sounds, but it presents them with energy and inventiveness and charm and balls. It manages to be catchy as all hell without having a chorus. I have a two-year-old son who transforms into an avatar of pure unthinking joy every time he hears the song. (He mumbles “Uptown Funk!” in his sleep. I am not joking. It’s his favorite thing other than dinosaurs.) “Uptown Funk” is the rare song that manages to transcend hit status and becomes some sort of cultural event. We’ll still be hearing it at weddings years from now, and some of us will even be happy to hear it.
“Uptown Funk” is also one of the great bait-and-switches in recent memory, in that almost nothing on Uptown Special sounds anything like it. It might’ve been easy enough for Ronson and Mars to make a full album of old-school funk pastiches, and maybe they still will, now that “Uptown Funk” has hit this omnipresent level. And a few songs on the album at least have a similar spirit. “Feel Right,” the song that Mystikal showed up to rap on SNL, is its own sort of retro-funk groove, with Mystikal going into full James Brown preacher-grunt mode over tumbling drums, threatening to fuck around and knock ya fruit juice loose. The song is a pure showcase for the New Orleans rapper, and that’s a complicated thing morally. Mystikal is not a good guy; he served six years in prison for sexual battery and extortion, and he’s had issues with domestic abuse and missed child support payments since he came home. But all of us perform our own ethical calculus when it comes to loving music made by fucked-up people, and the way Mystikal bellows daffy shit — “I eat flames up! Shit fire out! Don’t make my light my butt!” — is enough to overwhelm all my reservations. Your mileage may vary, but that’s where I’m at. “Don’t make me light my butt” is enough for me. Meanwhile, “I Can’t Lose,” which has undiscovered gospel singer Keyonne Starr cooing like Control-era Janet Jackson over Trombone Shorty horn stabs, has some of that same retro euphoria working for it. But most of Uptown Special is in a whole other aesthetic ballpark.
Ronson has always been a producer-as-curator type, figuring out which pieces of old-school soul and pop work best with whatever kind of music he’s trying to make. And what he draws on for Uptown Special mostly isn’t gutbucket funk. It’s the early-’80s moment where ’70s studio-rock dinosaurs had to figure out ways to update their sounds and hold on to their demographics. That’s a fun era; songs like Journey’s “Separate Ways” or Yes’ “Owner Of A Lonely Heart” are messy pileups of new-wave synth sheen and old-school arena bombastics, and these days, their awkwardness is part of their appeal. And if that seems like a weird sound for anyone to knowingly revisit, consider the fact that Ronson was raised by the guy from Foreigner.
Ronson has brought in some of the world’s best musicians and technicians to make this thing gleam in a particular way. Jeff Bhasker, a producer who’s worked as a hired hand for Kanye West and Taylor Swift, serves as co-pilot, co-producing just about everything and singing a few songs in a reedy ’80s blue-eyed soul tenor. Lots of big behind-the-scenes names show up in the album credits: Boys Noize and James Ford and Emile Haynie and Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs. Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker and Miike Snow’s Andrew Wyatt, both of whom have spent time as Ronson’s star-producer peers, come through to sing a few songs each, both of them bringing the streaks Todd Rundgren influence in their sounds all the way to the front of the mix. But Ronson also has a great instinct for disruption, and he knows exactly when to interrupt all the smoothness by bringing in postpunk shit-stirrer Kirin J Callahan to play a screeching, gurgling guitar solo on the Parker-sung “Daffodils.” “Daffodils,” with its great wobbling two-stepping bass riff and its cokehead gleam, is probably the best non-“Uptown Funk” song here, and I’ve been catching myself dancing to it when it’s not even on. That song could be huge, albeit in a very different way from “Uptown Funk.”
Another remarkable thing about “Daffodils”: Parker has to sell some remarkably goofy lyrics — “Run your fingers down the cool underbelly of the blue evening / Crank that vapor-wagon” — and he pulls it off. Those lyrics come from one of Uptown Special’s important and unlikely guests: the Adventures Of Kavalier And Clay novelist Michael Chabon. Chabon wrote many of the album’s words, turning it into a concept album about two West Coast con men in a seedy love triangle with a femme fatale. Some of Chabon’s imagery will stick with you: “Some girls are pieced like Krylon bombs on the walls / Some cut the line to cut the lines in the stalls / On the floor is the border between paradise and the fall.” All of them are messy and silly and not especially suited to pop music. And none of them resonate quite like Bruno Mars’ assertion that he’s so hot that you should call the police and the fireman and that he’ll make a dragon want to retire, man.
Chabon’s involvement is a daring intellectual leap, one Ronson deserves credit for attempting, but it doesn’t really work. Still, Ronson deserves even more credit for arranging these magnificent pop songs that still work even when the lyrics are ridiculous. If you read this great Guardian piece where Ronson walks you through the album’s making, you’ll see that Ronson and his collaborators built the album out of spare parts: An unused bassline from an unfinished xx remix here, a discarded Rufus Wainwright guitar riff there. But the whole thing, for all its lyrical leaps and its genre-dabbling and its retro affectations, hangs together as one of the slickest and most unashamedly fun mainstream pop albums in recent memory.
Other albums of note out today:
• Panda Bear’s warped, fluttery, anxious Panda Bear Meets The Grim Reaper.
• California X’s fuzz-punk scrawl Nights In The Dark.
• Ex-Oxford Collapse fromtman Mike Pace And The Child Actors’ debut Best Boy.
• Ascension’s anthemic, populist black metaller The Dead Of The World.
• The Crown’s Swedish death thrash blast Death Is Not Dead.
• Ryan Adams’ No Shadow EP.
• Ty Segall’s Mr. Face EP.
• Teen Daze’s A World Away EP.
• Little Brutes’ Desire EP.