Review Summary: Even with the obvious growing pains usually associated with sophomore albums, Unorthodox Jukebox is a fun romp through the tunes of a more ambitious Bruno Mars.
Ever since he struck a chord in the public eye back in 2009, Bruno Mars has put a focus on appealing to a mass audience while retaining at least some integrity into his simplistic pop/rock sound. To be honest, he does warrant some credit for being above-average in terms of talent in mainstream pop, and injects a fair amount of diversity to boot. With that said, his 2010 debut album Doo-Wops and Hooligans wasn't exactly as "wild" as the title suggested, merely being a mildly enjoyable romp through typical radio-friendly song structures and the occasionally steamy innuendo or two in the lyrical department.
That's why it's so surprising that 2012's Unorthadox Jukebox is so different in style, both lyrically and musically. In a move similar to Florence and the Machine with 2011's Ceremonials, everything seems more diverse and... well... big, for lack of a better word. The ballads are more grand in production and size, while the more upbeat tunes tend to tap into artists such as Michael Jackson ("Treasure"), The Police ("Locked Out of Heaven," along with a general reggae-rock atmosphere in much of the album), Earth, Wind and Fire ("Moonshine" among others), and more. Mars switches between these styles effectively and still retains the style that initially made him popular in the process.
The other big surprise is in the lyrics. They can basically be described as a mix of being extremely vulgar (especially compared to his previous release) and surprisingly emotional and heartfelt. The amount of f-bombs in some of these tracks was pretty shocking, and yet for every one of those moments, there are songs like ballad highlight "Moonshine" to keep things calm and collected. Unfortunately, the lyrics can be pretty weak at times; while Mars's vocal delivery is commendable, the words he sings are typical One Direction-ish "love and heartbreak" fluff. Songs like "Young Girls" are plain breezy entertainment, but the simplistic nature of the poetry often doesn't do the music justice.
Musically, the album fares better for the most part. As was mentioned, the album is more "produced" in nature; extremely heavy vocal multitracking clashes with more ambitious musical accompaniment. Tunes like "Gorilla," "Moonlight," and "Money Make Her Smile" sound more grand in scale, with Mars' slick vocal harmonies glazed over the lush backdrops of synths, pianos, various percussion instruments, etc. These very moments on the record are fantastic, and really show Mars's progression as an artist while clearly displaying a sense of adventure that wasn't exactly prominent on his first offering. Unfortunately, there's a quandary with this: when Mars isn't supported by a large amount of instrumentation, the flaws start to show themselves more. As I said before, the lyrics are a big blemish on the album, and when Bruno decides to only include sparse music and showcase himself more, things get a tad rocky. One of the cases where it works to his advantage, however, is on the surprisingly beautiful ballad "Moonshine," in which Mars's vocals meld with the piano work seamlessly and the lyrics are at least more fitting (if still quite cliched). Still, shameless annoyances such as the bland simplistic reggae of "Show Me" or the obstrusive cussing in Michael Jackson facsimile "Treasure" would definitely have been better left off the album in the long run. As was said though, the portions that are good are extremely good, making this pop above-average compared to many radio acts today.
Give him some credit, Bruno Mars is certainly improving, and Unorthodox Jukebox eclipses his debut by a pretty long shot. Unfortunately, as is expected with a sophomore release, the album has its share of growing pains. That aside, though, Unorthodox Jukebox is a good investment for fans of catchy pop, and even then, more discerning listeners may be pleasantly surprised with occasional hints of brilliance and real depth. All in all, Mars is growing as an artist, and this album suggests that he might have a very promising musical journey ahead of him.