Bruno Mars has really come out with full force on his debut album Doo-Wops & Hooligans. Unfortunately, for all of the slick presentation and his ability to blend in well with other artists, his album lacks a clear identity all its own. It’s multiple stabs at throwback music that don’t quite gel thematically or sonically.
Like Amy Winehouse with blues or Michael Buble with standards, Bruno Mars is trying to bring back the 1950s R&B and rock forms. As the title of the album suggests, one of these styles is doo-wop. As clever as the harmonic inclusions are, the doo-wop formula fails to impress as anything other than a gimmick.
It’s best used on the track “Marry You,” where the traditional vocal harmonies are replaced with chimes. The driving guitar, syncopated drum beat, and broken up chords are present; they’re just transformed into a palatable pop formula. It still feels like a doo-wop gimmick. However, the cheesy theme and energy of Mars’ vocal masque that.
The same cannot be said for the rest of the album. There are 80′s R&B, surf-rock, and folk-rock undercurrents throughout the album that do not gel at all with that initial style. The album leads off with his first two singles, “Grenade” and “Just the Way You Are,” that play like boy band pop meets crossover ’60s R&B. From here, you don’t know what you’ll get. “Our First Time” is a slow jam R&B track, while “Runaway Baby” is rock in the style of Jackie Benson or Ike Turner. Even as a pastiche of R&B styles–sort of a tribute to the evolution of to the genre–this album had potential.
Unfortunately, Bruno Mars is not going for a focused look at modern music history. He’s just throwing every style he ever liked into his debut album and will sort out an identity later. “The Lazy Song” and “Talking to the Moon” are California-hued folk-rock singalongs. “Liquor Store Blues” is the pop-reggae sound that is better suited to Sean Paul or Nina Sky. There’s no logic to the progression of the songs.
What confuses me the most about this album is the quality of the music. Each song–isolated–is strong. The album is well-produced. The mix is great. The effects that clearly define the genre from track to track are strong. There’s just no cohesion. It’s like a soundtrack to a film that doesn’t exist.
What Doo-Wops & Hooligans functions as is a calling card for Bruno Mars as a songwriter or guest artist. His voice has a great deal of stylistic range and he knows how to put together a catchy groove. While people in the industry knew him as a songwriter, he was stuck working with the same kind of crossover rap/dance clientele. Now, he can probably write his ticket into any mainstream contemporary genre as a songwriter and producer.
I have a feeling, however, that critics will not be as lenient with his cross-genre pandering on a second album. It’s not that every artist needs to stick to one thing. It’s that an album needs to work as a whole and not just be unrelated future singles.
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