Review Summary: Give ‘em the ol’ razzle dazzle
First, the money question, the one music nerds will gladly pore over an album like this for years on end trying to answer: Did Silk Sonic do their homework? Do they know their shi
t? Are they ~real fans~??? Well, the short answer is yes. Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak have taken pains to make the sonic in your headphones every bit as authentically vintage as the silk in their music videos. Setting aside quibbles over the clean 'n' pristine fidelity on display: the songwriting across An Evening with Silk Sonic
lovingly recreates the palette and mood of 70s smooth soul with fanboyish fervor, drawing from a wide swathe of the genre’s luminaries, from Isaac Hayes and The Miracles to William DeVaughn and Barry White. Check the modulation in the prechorus on lead single "Leave The Door Open", or the spacey, Eddie Hazel-lite guitar noodling in “Blast Off”, or the immaculate vocal harmonies draped liberally about the entire damn album. Care has been taken to effectively capture the feel of those old Motown and Stax records- that classy, timeless sensuality that has captured the hearts and loins of so many over the decades.
Even the concessions to 21st-century songwriting convention (I doubt that anyone in the 70s would have sang something like "this bitch got me paying her rent") feel reined-in, in a way that suggests consideration for how the old greats would
do things if they were still alive and/or in their prime today (Marvin would absolutely have sang something like "this bitch got me paying her rent" if he had been born 30 years later). Hell, sometimes the duo goes so far as to recreate the 70s in some of its less timeless incarnations, namely the gimmicky Philly Soul of "Skate" and the ill-advised funk/rap mix-up "Fly As Me". Overall, the illusion is never quite complete enough to forget you're listening to a self-conscious imitation, but it also never falters for more than a moment, and that effort and dedication is pretty damn admirable.
However, once faithfulness to the source material has been established, we’re led to a far more slippery follow-up question, and one I'm personally much more interested in: why? What about 70s soul, according to Silk Sonic, is worth bringing back in 2021? Which aspects of their influences do they prize the most, which do they set aside, and what does that reveal about their ethos? To put it in catchy terms, what version of the 70s are they nostalgic for?
Looking at each member individually, we can certainly make educated guesses. Bruno Mars, for his part, clearly yearns for the days of unadulterated showmanship, when nobody cared whether you wrote your own songs or "really meant" the words you were singing. He's always been kind of a phony, and I don't even mean that as an insult. His pastiches famously outstrip his more stylistically distinct work exactly because they allow him to lean into glitzy spectacle and enthusiastic playacting, things he's much, much better at than sincerity or emotional rawness. The music video for "Smokin' Out The Window" finds Mars dressed to the nines, busting out a slick little choreographed shimmy with a lit cigarette burning lazily in one hand; it's easy to believe that he would be doing that 24/7 if he could. If the chorus soars just right and the arrangement is warm and inviting enough, then "every word that I say is comin’ straight from the heart" can be the afterthought he clearly wants it to be.
Anderson .Paak, on the other hand, is a hopeless romantic, with a silly streak that lets him get substantially weirder than Mars does. The undying popularity of the Love Song over the decades has allowed his retro inclinations to meld more smoothly with his modern ones, streaks of psychedelia and neo-soul smolder all blending into a sound that isn’t afraid to put new spins on the familiar styles he’s clearly indebted to. He loves jazzy chords, dense orchestration, and smooth-croonin’ vocals, but all only to the extent that they allow for a colorful and compelling journey through steamy bedroom romps and teary-eyed breakups, and that they vividly illustrate the kookiest imagery he can muster. To those ends, the 70s represent the pinnacle of many of these sensibilities, a time when lustful serenades were prized by critics and casual listeners alike, when analog production, live session ringers, and comical amounts of money allowed the soundtrack to love and heartbreak to sound every bit as lustrous and cinematic as you might picture it in your head. Paak’s ultimate vision of classic soul is of a burnished-honey aesthetic so lush and intoxicating that you won’t even mind a couple corny one-liners sprinkled in here and there.
Vegas-residency slickness and askew casanova-isms are a sensible enough pairing, and as An Evening With Silk Sonic
plays out, they do manage to complement each other more often than not. There are certainly hiccups- Paak’s braggadocio on “Fly As Me” picking up unflattering shades of Mars’s performative sleaze, or some of the zanier lines in “After Last Night” marring the track’s hot ‘n’ heavy vibe- but on pop gems like “Smokin’ Out the Window”, “Put On A Smile”, and “Leave the Door Open”, it’s veritable chocolate and peanut butter. Paak’s sprightly irreverence staves off the sterility that even Mars’s best songs occasionally suffer from, and Mars uses his stellar voice and assured delivery to give the album a big-budget sheen Paak’s solo work tends to make do without. At worst, it’s mildly awkward and a little bit precious; at best, it’s a match made in heaven.
So, taking all this into account, how does An Evening With Silk Sonic
fare as a throwback? For all the nitpicks I can throw at it, I’ve gotta say: not too shabby at all! Yes, it’s awfully tempting to scorn the absence of anything that really pushes boundaries or provokes thought (remember Innervisions
? Remember There's A Riot Goin' On
??), but there’s real value in entertainment for its own sake, in shamelessly cheesy flirtations and over-the-top emotionality. These aren’t exactly noble pursuits, but they’re certainly legitimate, and Silk Sonic pursues them here as gracefully and good-naturedly as anyone could hope for. It may not be a masterpiece to last the ages, but if your hankerings begin and end with smooth, catchy jams and cheeky R&B caricatures, this album is an evening you won't regret.