Release Date: January 13, 2015
One can never fault bi-continental producer/DJ/sporadic lead artist Mark Ronson for a lack of enthusiasm. The title of 2010’s Record Collection could just have easily fit onto any of his other albums — Ronson’s sometimes greater than the sum of his influences, sometimes lesser, but you never have any trouble discerning what the elements are in the equation. That’s not really a problem, though: In his music as in his interviews, Ronson is the consummate name-dropper, but he does so with such wonder, such giddiness and such obvious reverence for the legends he’s aping (and in some cases, actually collaborating with) that it’s hard to really begrudge the 39-year-old kid whose two decades of work in the business has allowed him access to music’s ultimate candy store.
Uptown Special, Ronson’s first LP since Record Collection, follows in the same path of scraping the annals of pop history, with the notable difference that now, people west of the Atlantic are also paying attention. Quasi-title track “Uptown Funk” topped the Billboard Hot 100 last week, and it stands out on Special as an obvious career-high, a track built around obvious and inarguable funk touchstones (a little Isley Brothers, a little Kool & the Gang, maybe even a dash of the Meters), with well-placed references to Michelle Pfeiffer and Trinidad James, and the plausibly “too-hot” charisma of its chart-established guest vocalist, Bruno Mars. Like “Get Lucky” in 2013, it’s designed to exclude no one from its appeal, a pop smash for ages 5 to 99, and it should slot comfortably between songs by Earth, Wind & Fire and Maroon 5 in wedding playlists well into the 2020s.
The question of whether the rest of the album can measure up is not one the pop-encyclopedic performer is particularly concerned with. In fact, with the arguable exception of the scintillating “Feel Right” — in which Ronson accurately estimates that there’s less difference than you’d think between comeback-overdue New Orleans rapper Mystikal’s babbling and the grunty tongue-speaking of James Brown — he doesn’t even try. Much of the rest of the album is spent in a smoky ’70s-psych haze, in which surreal lyrics about imaginary hallucinogens and teenage zombie hoodlums (written by Michael Chabon; yes, that Michael Chabon) are set by singers Andrew Wyatt (Miike Snow) and Kevin Parker (Tame Impala) over Katy Lied-era Steely Dan guitar and electric piano grooves. The songs are effective and even somewhat infectious — the producer’s ear for rubbery, narcissistic art-rock is as adept as it is for floor-filling soul — but their fit is predictably awkward alongside the aforementioned crowd-pleasers.
The problem with Mark Ronson’s all-encompassing exuberance for pop music’s past is that he has too much love to dole out coherently over an 11-track album. Uptown Special‘s bookend tracks feature Ronson’s hero Stevie Wonder on harmonica — the weight of his appearances often bringing the funk acolyte to tears in interviews — and it’s actually worth wondering if Ronson should maybe try his hand at his own Songs in the Key of Life some time. His material might not have the timeliness or emotional heft to carry a three-LP set, but a longer run time would finally give 21st-century pop’s most prolific fanboy the chance to spread out his influences without having them spill over the edges of a 40-minute set. As is, Uptown Special plays a little like a Spotify playlist on random — fun, and unexpectedly thrilling at times, but jarring and never totally satisfying.