Review Summary: Hot damn.
It’s not particularly remarkable that Mark Ronson was the one who finally snatched the Billboard
Hot 100 crown from Taylor Swift’s clenched fists. The shock is that it took this long for it to happen. The British producer and singer-songwriter has been torching European charts for years, ever since his work on Amy Winehouse’s seminal Back to Black
album defined his modern-retro pastiche and took Ronson’s work out of the warehouse clubs where he had made his name and into Grammy territory. That it took a guest spot from Bruno Mars to seize the #1 spot shouldn’t dilute the accomplishment. Indeed, it’s a fitting track for a producer with as shifting a sound as Ronson, one who doesn’t have so much of a signature sound as he does an expert handle on a wide tapestry of past styles and how they weave seamlessly into trends of the present. By collaborating with one of pop music’s great faceless chameleons, Ronson makes “Uptown Funk,” the record’s thesis statement, a deft summation of his own aesthetic, transporting his deliciously subversive sound to a wider audience through the pleasantly vanilla guise of Mars’ energetic persona.
A song with a title like “Uptown Funk” should be corny, terrible, likely flat, and, yes, a lot of the landmarks of the contrivances you would expect – machine-gun horns, overactive syncopation, inane lyrics – define the song. Yet “Uptown Funk” never feels dated; it’s vibrant and alive, a celebration of present moods through the prism of the past, another encore of a sound Ronson has meticulously curated over his career. Where 2007’s Version
reimagined current hits in strange and kaleidoscopic ways and 2010’s Record Collection
was an ill-timed shot across the bow for weird pop music (released today, there’s no question “Bang Bang Bang” would be a huge hit), Uptown Special
is Ronson’s most straightforward record. It successfully nails the coke-dusted pleasure centers of ‘80s funk, James Brown and Earth, Wind & Fire while still stretching supinely across genres like psychedelia and jazz fusion, enlisting everyone from Mystikal (whose rap on “Feel Right” is a hilarious high point – “slapping kittens,” indeed) to uber-producer Jeff Bhasker (Kanye West, fun., Taylor Swift) to smooth out the rougher edges of his vision. Few songwriters could marry the Southern gospel soul of newfound vocalist Keyone Starr with the cosmic synthesizers and retrofitted new jack swing of “I Can’t Lose” and then sidle that up comfortably next to “Daffodils,” where Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker takes Ronson’s squelchy, lush psych-pop to hallucinatory heights.
He’s certainly the only songwriter that has enlisted the help of a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist to write the entirety of his lyrics, but that’s exactly what Ronson did with author Michael Chabon (The Yiddish Policemen’s Union
, Telegraph Avenue
). Chabon penning lyrics like, “Might have to wait to start in on your drinking / All of Hell’s Kitchen standing in that line / I’ll be here, living in my Lincoln / Occupying space and conquering time” that Miike Snow’s Andrew Wyatt croons with a sexual confidence on “Heavy and Rolling” is at once deeply bizarre and entirely normal. There’s little rhyme or reason to Ronson’s decision or Chabon’s lyrics, but they fit just the same. That juxtaposition strikes at the heart of what makes Uptown Special
such an entertaining listen in today’s pop landscape. Ronson has made a career out of taking old sounds and reconfiguring them into something that sounds both in and out of its own time – fresh and exciting, yet with tangible threads floating haphazardly into the decades behind it, intertwined and hopelessly knotted up. In this respect, he remains the ideal purveyor of pop music in the 21st century, where influences are a click away and the biggest hits – “Get Lucky,” “Fu
ck You,” Channel Orange
– engender that same kind of timelessness. Uptown Special
’s greatest attribute, then, is that it could have been a hit in any decade, a slyly running commentary on the fluidity of modern pop music but one that never fails to forget what the people really want: to dance, dumb and delirious, and forget.