Music Reviews
Uptown Special

Mark Ronson Uptown Special

(Columbia) Buy it from Insound Rating - 4/10

Nine months ago, inexplicably popular misery-peddler Sam Smith had this to say in an interview with GQ magazine: “Disco needs to stop. I like disco, I liked it when it came out – like last year with Get Lucky but now everyone seems to be doing it and it’s way too much”. As baffling statements go, it was right up there with Craig David’s bizarre 2010 admission (“I didn’t actually know that Motown was a label. I thought it was an era or a genre, like New Jack Swing or something”) and further showed that a basic knowledge of the history of popular music is in no way a prerequisite to modern-day success.

Sam Smith’s faux pas and lack of awareness mean it’s tempting to think that he spent the back end of last year excitedly telling anyone who’d listen about the fresh, new sounds of Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars’ Uptown Funk. For the rest of us, sure, Uptown Funk was a captivating and thrilling listen, but it contains about as much original content as an evening’s programming on Challenge TV.

Uptown Funk – which has recently passed the million sales mark in the UK – doesn’t just nod to the past, it embraces it with a lingering bear hug and asks it if it fancies grabbing a coffee sometime. The “Uptown funk you up!” motif is a direct rip off of The Gap Band’s Oops Up Side Your Head, which is joined by shades of Was (Not Was), Michael Jackson circa Off The Wall, Chic and, depending on your opinion, the theme tune to 1990s kids’ television favourite The Really Wild Show. Does any of this matter? Not particularly. As a quick fix of a song, it’s utterly irresistible and, despite having been played out of any electronic contraption with something resembling a speaker continually for the past three months, its allure shows little sign of waning.

Uptown Funk heralded an unexpected return to the limelight for Mark Ronson who, until then, was still better known for his production (particularly on Amy Winehouse’s similarly retro Back To Black) and schmoozing about town. There has always been an aloofness and a detachedness about Ronson, like the guy at work who is friendly enough to you when there’s no-one more important around, but will drop you like a shot as soon as the opportunity presents itself to hang on the every word of one of the bosses.

This perception of Ronson as networker par excellence is augmented just thirty seconds into Uptown Special when an unmistakeable harmonica sound pierces the airwaves. Yes, it’s Stevie Wonder who, you may be aware, was no slouch back in the commercial heyday of soul and disco. In fact, every track on Uptown Special has at least one guest star of decent pedigree: Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker, Jeff Bhasker (who has collaborated with both Kanye West and Jay Z, amongst others) and, unexpectedly, Mystikal.

On paper, this all gives the impression of a super cool party that you should feel honoured that you’re even getting a glimpse of, and that’s exactly how it works in practice. In Case Of Fire has a glam riff that sounds tremendous fun to play, but it’s papering over the cracks of a wan song that leaves you feeling short-changed. Elsewhere, pastiche rules, as if Mark Ronson has asked his celebrity friends over and assembled the world’s most famous covers band, and now he wants to rub your nose in how great his life is.

Musically, it ends up being a case of Uptown Funk and ten other songs. His huge recent success will likely have won him new fans (some of which are unlikely to be on-board with Mystikal’s repeated exclamations of, “It feels GOOD in this motherfucker!”) but his obvious love of the past is severely restricting his growth. When he revives sounds and trends that could do with a little critical reappraisal – again, think Back To Black – he’s heralded as a visionary but increasingly, it seems like a scattergun approach where he just happens to get lucky periodically.

Somehow, because Uptown Funk is so, so good, Uptown Special is even more disappointing. As the football cliché goes, it’s the hope that kills you and with Uptown Funk, there was a suggestion that Mark Ronson had started to put the listener first. But no, we’re largely left with a love letter to the 1970s and 1980s that does little more than make you want to go and listen to the artists and records who did it right first time.