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Friday, 28 June 2013

Ali Listens: Unorthodox Jukebox


I love this album. I appreciated “The Lion The Beast theBeat” and “Boys & Girls”. I have mad respect for “The Archandroid.” But I love Unorthodox Jukebox. Like, I can picture myself ten years from now unearthing this CD, putting it in the player (we’ll still have those in ten years, right?) and being transported right back to this moment in time, with total recall of what it felt like to be twenty three and really messed up.


It reminds me of “Little Red Corvette” by Prince. You know the song that starts out sexy, gets dancey, then with one line—“You’re gonna run your body right into the ground!”—injects a hint of melancholy that sticks with us all through the epic play-out.“Unorthodox Jukebox” is a combination of songs that celebrate a good time, and songs that regret what those good times have cost you.  It may take Mars & Co. a whole album to do what Prince accomplished in one track, but still some major credit is due. This interpretation may be a result of my present emotional state—Certainly the years I spent idly doing fuck-all seem less fun now that I’m an (almost) twenty-four year old temp who dearly wishes she never stopped practicing the violin.

Anyway, to business...

1.  Young Girls

The first ten seconds sound like sunrise after a sleepless night. It conjures up the bleary, “oh my god is it really that time?” feeling. Or maybe it's the "sun-is-rising-and-I-have-no-idea-where-I-am" syndrome, which I personally have never experienced, but for whatever reason I am now picturing Mars waking up on a rooftop like that poor bastard in The Hangover .

The producers hit a bull’s-eye on those opening ten seconds,‘cos sure enough when the lyrics start, our hero is at the start of a new day and the end of a long night:
“I spent all my money/ bought a big ole fancy car / for these bright eyed honeys/ Oh yeah you know who you are / Keep me up ‘til the sun is high / ‘til the birds start calling my name / I’m addicted and I don’t know why / Guess I’ve always been this way / All these roads steer me wrong / But I still drive them all night long.”

He can’t control himself. There’s a sense that in a few years he’ll regret all this, but for now he’s at a loss for what to do instead.  There are certain trappings of success that (I’m guessing) it's hard to say no to. After working his whole life to get to this point, this character has trained himself that this is what he wants, so it’s hard to say no to all the sex, drugs, and parties that are supposedly the reward for all that hard work.

There’s a palpable sadness and weariness in every note of this song. It sounds like a Ronettes classic, slowed down for maximum introspection. All four writers deserve gold stars, while Mars’ voice, with its unbearably adorable little-boy-lost quality to it, sells this shit for maximum emotional devastation.  


*If I may veer into the personal one more time, my early life was dominated by endless work that stifled my desire to do anything I didn’t absolutely have to do. Whenever I wasn’t at school or work, I wanted nothing more than to turn up the music and just do nothing. For ten whole years. And while other people went to dances and got boyfriends or jobs or hilarious anecdotes to relate at a later time, I got an uninterrupted evening to myself, which I stupidly believed was all I ever wanted out of life.

There was always a sense that I was missing out on something, but to get it would mean sacrificing the thing that I lived for—a place away from feeling insecure about all the things I was doing wrong, or would do wrong if I tried them. It’s weird, and weirdly comforting to think that someone so far at the other end of the spectrum would grapple with the same feelings—in short, the “what I wanted might not be the best thing for me, but I don’t know how to want anything else,” dilemma.

I would also like to add, that should Bruno Mars die young, we all know this will be released as a single and designated the mass-mourning song. Every artist should have one in their catalogue just in case.


2. Locked out of Heaven

This song has already been (rightly) praised to death. The four-on-the-floor chorus, the beat-box that actually sounds like a musical instrument and not a sound effect, the lyrics...it’s all perfection. But what takes it over the top is how it all builds to that fabulous musical orgasm at the 2:42 mark, followed by the laid back (post-coital?) repeat of the chorus (3:10), which, for whatever reason, makes me think of Fred and Ginger dancing off the screen in one of their classic movies.

There are but a few perfect moments in cinema history, and Fred and Ginger own at least five of them.


3. Gorilla

And now it’s time to check in with those Young Wild Girls and just what they’re doing to our poor, set-upon young lover  who has decided that he would rather be Prince than Sting, thank-you-very-much. This is the one point on the album where Mars’ adorable (I swear I don’t mean to be condescending when I use that word) vocals fail him. He can’t quite sell the “body full of liquor with a cocaine ticker” line, even though we all know he’s been arrested for cocaine possession and some youtube commenter informs me he pissed on a stranger who told him he was too drunk (I didn’t look into it because knowing shit like that about a complete stranger never did anybody any good). But I digress. The production is smooth and decadent so that Gorilla sounds like a great song, even though the image of primates humping is, alas, not as arousing as Bruno Mars seems to think it is.

This song also has a dorky wish-fulfillment vibe, with its, “30 feet tall” and “I bet you never ever felt so good,” lines. It’s embarrassing when a man so obviously wants to be assured that he’s THE BEST EVER, but this song is already so weird it’s kind of endearing.  And if Mars’ vocals don’t quite live up to the lyrics he can take solace in the fact that his “OOoohs”  and “Yeah!”s  in the last  minute and a half are perfection. He sounds more dangerous and alluring than Prince or Michael Jackson...though admittedly, the bar for that one was only set about waist high.


4. Treasure
First off, I love that the official video isn't available in HD, and defaults to 360p. That's comittment.
This song sounds like it was assembled from spare parts of Prince's Shallow as it is on its own, “Treasure” is a necessary palette cleanser between “Gorilla” and “Moonshine”.  The “Baby Squirrel” line is a nice wink at the audience, though it makes me feel like there’s a joke I’m not in on, that may be kind of sexist. But whatever. This one’s forgettable.

ONE MORE THING: What is Bruno Mars’s obsession with insecure women? The heroine of “Just the Way You Are” was some a nervous wreck who couldn’t take a compliment and hated her own laugh. This chick “don’t know it but [she’s] fine so fine.” Is this guy seriously that attracted to insecurity or is he just catering to a hell of a lucrative demographic?


5. Moonshine

Okay, back to the good stuff. How can a song actually sound drugged out? The hazy paranoia of the first twenty seconds of “Moonshine” conjure up the feeling of someone in desperate need of a fix. Twenty seconds! “Evocative” is the word you’re searching for, ladies and gentlemen.

The beat proper doesn’t come in until after our hero has connected with his quarry and they drive off into the night. I don’t know if this is sex as a metaphor for drugs, or drugs as a metaphor for sex. It might be an amalgam of all that hedonistic swill, but boy does it sound great. Evocative.

It might be an even darker track than “Gorilla”, but in this case Mars’ high voice serves him better. He doesn’t have to sound aggressive this time, just equal parts lecherous and lost.


6. When I Was Your Man

Oh look, another #1 hit. I like to think that means I don’t have to write anything about this one. It’s a song so direct that it’s almost pandering: “I should have bought you flowers / And held your hand / Should have gave you all my hours / When I had the chance.” Congratulations Bruno Mars, you just sang what every scorned woman in the history of Planet Earth has ever wanted to hear, and I hope you enjoy the financial windfall it brings your way. 

This single actually sounds better in the context of the whole album. “Moonshine” answers the question of just what he did wrong when he was her man, and it’s dangerous enough to balance out this tracks gooey sincerity.


7. Natalie

Let me begin by saying that this song is everything Madonna’s “Gang Bang” wishes it could be. The antithesis to “Grenade,” it’s nasty and cruel but oddly fun to sing along with.
Misogynistic is a strong word, and I’ll entertain the debate over whether this song deserves to be painted with that brush. After all, he’s “digging a ditch for that gold digging bitch.” This allmusic review has very strong feelings about that one. I prefer to hear thsi song as jokey melodrama, the antithesis to the equally over the top “Grenade”.

The biggest strike against Bruno Mars is that on (almost) every other song this guy’s ideal woman is weak and insecure. Ahem, “You walk around here like you wanna be someone else ...you don’t know it but you’re fine so fine”, “Her laugh she hates but I think it’s so sexy,” “They might say ‘hi’/ I might say ‘hey’ but you shouldn’t worry / about what they say.” It says something that the only assertive female in his repertoire is marked for death (working with Chris Brown in any capacity will not get you in with the feminists either).

Two things save this song: One, Natalie isn’t actually the only assertive female in his repertoire—we can’t forget the “Good strong woman” who dumped his ass for not taking her to enough parties. And two—Bruno Mars does not have the voice of a killer.

That’s one sentence  I never thought I’d have cause to type, but there you have it. I know next to nothing about Bruno the man, but the voice that couldn’t sell the line about a “cocaine ticker” sure as hell can’t make this revenge fantasy sound like anything to get too upset about. I have a feeling that when he catches her they’re’ll be less murder and more Gorilla sex. 


8. Show Me



9.  Money Make Her Smile

Wow, is this post already 2,000 words? I really do love this album, guys. The best part of this song is its opening “All you get back / coming to the stage is a girl who’s new in town”—ah , the corruption of innocence. Beyond that, the song on its own is only so-so, with overreliance on electronic sound effects rather than real instruments. It sounds just as knocked-off as “Treasure” but even more shallow. But the inhuman chant of “Give ‘em what you got” and even the obnoxious electro sound effects build on the atmosphere of excess that the album has built up so well. The smooth elegance of a song like “Gorilla” is replaced by a manic, insane, obnoxious, electro swell. With its inhuman chant of “Give ‘em what you got! Got! Got!” this is the audio equivalent of the moment when all the excess and filth that was alluded to on previous tracks spills over into something ugly and alienating (Speaking of which,  this song was co-written by Chris Brown).  Which brings us to...


10. If I knew

Ouch. The last track is the realization of all the creeping doubts raised in “Young Girls.”  “I was a city (silly?) boy / Riding to dangers where I’d always run / A boy who had his fun/ But I wouldn’t have done / All the things that I have done / If I knew one day you’d come.”

This silly boy is damaged goods. The woman he loves can’t deal with his past and he wants a do-over. I can think of a dozen different reasons why this song is so affecting, but what it all comes down to is that everyone has something in their lives that they regret. That feeling creeps up on us in between the good times until one day it overwhelms them.

“I wish we were seventeen / So I could give you all the innocence / That you gave to me.”

He’s actually slut-shaming himself. That gender reversal alone would make this song interesting even if it wasn’t so emotionally devastating. And of course the last song feeds perfectly into the first if you’re player plays in a loop. It makes for a perfect circle, and a vicious cycle.



I’ve done a bit with my life. I survived a tough high school program, got a scholarship to Canada’s top university, graduated with honours and wrote about four novels. They’ll never be published but on optimistic days I like to think that practise will come in handy when I get my big idea. But at seventeen I felt like I was already old and played out, so I stopped trying at anything that wasn’t school. School was the only thing I was ever praised for as child, so I gave up on (or flat out rejected) any feelings that I was attractive or the idea that my own creativity could lead somewhere better. I dug myself into a deep miserable hole from which I’m only starting to escape, all the while (still) worrying that it’s too late, like I’ve missed something crucial you can only learn once.

There is nothing at all like my life on “Unorthodox Jukebox,” and that’s for the best. Reliving a great party will always be more fun than reliving a long study session. But the hangover is the same. “I wish I was seventeen so I could give you all the innocence that you gave to me”. I never ever looked at anything with even a grain of innocence, or optimism. Fatalism is my middle name and has been since I was a teenager. But how I dearly wish it wasn’t. That’s why I respond to this album so strongly, because in between sexy pop songs, it’s all about getting lost and wanting a do-over.