Mark Ronson – Uptown Special
Just when you think you know all of the answers, Mark Ronson changes the questions. It’s what explained the move from swinging horns and clever covers to an album of synth-pop originals, and what’s lead the hitmaker to a curious crossroads. Where to from here? Ronson has responded on his fourth studio album in a manner befitting the little girl from the Old El Paso ads: Why not have both?
There are some classic Ronson throwbacks in the mix on Uptown Special, incorporating elements of classic funk and roller-disco. No doubt you’re already au fait with ‘Uptown Funk’, one of the few hit singles of the past calendar year that has truly justified its success. Even those normally put off by the cheesiness of Ronson’s vocalist of choice, Hawaiian heartthrob Bruno Mars, have found themselves unable to resist the song’s charm. It bounds effortlessly from hook to hook, from the “hot damn!” call-and-response to the syncopated outro chant, emphasised by a high-pitched “say whaaaat?” for good measure. Also of note is ‘Feel Right’, an R-rated James Brown homage in which Mystikal, sounding fresh from a Tony Montana-level dosage of cocaine, roars over a snapping drum beat, sizzling horns and some Nile Rodgers-aping guitar swagger. As soon as he begins reporting about how he “feel[s] right in this motherfucker,” you’ll no doubt be feeling the same.
“Choice cuts of fittingly psychedelic and fluttering pop”
The funk is definitely in the building once again, but it’s far from the only sound at the party. One of the album’s key collaborators comes in the form of Tame Impala figurehead Kevin Parker, who lends his vocals to three choice cuts of fittingly psychedelic and fluttering pop, carving out even more new territory for Ronson to explore. The standout moment of these team-ups is easily ‘Daffodils’, which twirls, spirals and trips the light fantastic around an incessant ‘Billie Jean’ beat, matched up with buzzing synths and an intrinsically-weaved guitar noodle. The track culminates in the kind of blossoming prog-pop that the Impala crew themselves could well achieve if their sights were set on reaching an even grander audience than their current palette has achieved.
A strictly-limited guestlist in comparison to the exhaustive list of featured artists on previous LPs allows for Ronson to hone in specifically on the strengths of his artists. The only instance in which this goes to waste is a criminally-underused Stevie Wonder. Let’s get this straight, Mark – you’ll gladly give ‘In Case of Fire’, an explicitly-clear homage to tracks like ‘Higher Ground’ and ‘Master Blaster’, to frequent collaborator and songwriter Jeff Bhasker; but you’ll sideline the real deal and relegate him to harmonica duties on your intro and outro tracks? May have wanted to reconsider that one.
Still, in the grand scheme of things, this serves as a relatively small con on a board that is overwhelmingly dominated by the pros. Uptown Special is yet another insight into one of the more flexibly creative names in contemporary pop. Don’t believe it? Just watch.