I was writing a post on my favourite music of 2014(and early 2015), and when I got to my section on Mark Ronson’s newest album, I just kept writing. So, I decided to make it its own thing. The other post will come out, but for now, here’s my take on Uptown Special.
This album challenged me. Probably more than any album has before now. And not necessarily in a good way.
But before we get into all of that, let me discuss the album itself.
Of my two favourite producer-led-featuring-guest-vocalists albums of all time, this seems much more like Plastic Beach than RAM. This album has some right out of the box fantastic tracks, like Daffodils and Uptown Funk, and it also has some that have grown on me, like Heavy and Rolling(A kind of smooth jazz Doobie Brothers jam) and In Case of Fire(A catchy Steely Dan type). If you told me the song I’d have listened to the most since the album came out was the soft rock Sublime type track Leaving Los Feliz, I wouldn’t’ve believed you, but dammit if that strutting bass line doesn’t just hold up. There’s tracks I just can’t get behind, like I Can’t Lose, Crack in the Pearl, and Feel Right. They’re just not my jams.
But for its ups and downs, my biggest problems with the album isn’t the tracks I dislike, it’s that it doesn’t feel like… well, an album. It feels like maybe 3 EPs mashed together, which is how I felt about Plastic Beach, except Plastic Beach at least had a thematic consistency to its lyrics. Some tracks sound very similar – Summer Breaking, Heavy and Rolling and Daffodils have very loose and spacey production sounds. Feel Right and Uptown Funk have perfect sounds – nothing is late or misplaced, everything is clean. It just doesn’t feel like this was album put together at the same time. And if you look at interviews, you’ll see things like “The album was largely co-written and produced by Ronson and Jeff Bhasker over 18 months in studios across London, Memphis, Los Angeles and New York City.”
Uptown Special is a great collection of songs, but it doesn’t feel like an album. Does that matter all that much? Probably not. If you like funky jams of any variety, check this album out.
Right, so, back to the story.
Ronson was an unknown to me before I heard the unstoppably funky Uptown Funk. It’s crisp, it’s clean, it’s immaculate. There’s not a single flaw with that track, and the video is insanely cool and fun to boot! And it seems to bury the lead – Why isn’t this a Bruno Mars track? Who is this Mark Ronson? So I checked out some of his other work. Some of his producer work I was already familiar with and some of his self-credited stuff quite caught my ear. So I was getting hyped for this album.
And then Daffodils came out. It wasn’t released as a single, it was previewed on a BBC show, and then made its way around the internet. Man oh man was I hooked. It was this incredibly catchy guitar hook with Kevin Parker’s echo-y Aussie vocals guiding us around in a space-rock haze(Boy, where have I fallen in love with that before?). Awesome, this new album is 2 for 2. Can’t wait!
Listening to the song for the five hundredth time, in an inexplicable lapse of my usual behaviour, I checked the youtube comments. I mean, who does that? Anyways, contained therein was a post calling Ronson a hack job. A scammer. A guy with rich and influential parents who wanted to be a music superstar but lacked any talent, so he bought his tracks. And what’s more, he had proof.
In early 2013, a friend of the band Tame Impala had her car stolen. In a nice bit of humanity, lead singer Kevin Parker and his bandmate quickly formed a new space rock band called Kevin Spacey(get it?) and played one gig, with the proceeds going to help their friend replace her car. Awfully nice of those Aussies. They changed their names a few times(The Golden Triangle Municipal Funk Band and AAA Aardvark Getdown Services), and did some other secret show type shenanigans. And if you look on youtube for video of that show, you can find some stuff, including video of them, completely without Mark Ronson around, playing Daffodils, 14 months before Uptown Special came out.
There’s a few differences, most significantly with the lyrics, and clearly Ronson had a hand in cleaning things up, but there’s nothing in Tame Impala’s background that suggests they weren’t going to bring that song from that version to the version that appears on Uptown Special on their own.
This launched me into a world of quandaries, many of which I just don’t have the answers to yet.
First of all, I’m not completely naive. I know that there are people who write songs, or parts of songs, and then shop them around for other people to add. The elephant in the room is Get Lucky. Rodgers shopped the beating heart guitar lick of Daft Punk’s rocket ship single around for months before Daft Punk scooped it up, but it’s not alone in that regard. This is something that’s always made me uncomfortable about music. But fine, whatever. So writing pop music is more like building a car than it is like painting a picture. I can live with that.
What’s different about this is that Daffodils doesn’t seem to have any major difference between the version played in a basement in Perth and the one that appears under Ronson’s bannerhead. And even the lyrical differences can’t be attributable to Ronson. Even by his own admission, he didn’t write most of the lyrics on this album – Micheal Chabon did.
So then what did Mark Ronson bring to the table? Did he just PAY Parker for the track? Boy, that sounds dirty, doesn’t it? And from the perspective of Car-commercial-and-indie-rock famous but not yet actually famous Tame Impala, exposure on a almost surefire hit album is a good thing. Stevie Wonder probably got a paycheck to play some harmonica. Sure, this sounds feasible.
But then we go back to Uptown Funk. Bruno Mars has an estimated net worth north of $50 million. He’s won Grammys and made platinum records. He’s pulled off the rare double-hosting of SNL. What could Mark Ronson possibly offer Bruno Mars that Mars couldn’t get himself? Why would Mars give away a hit song that he could just release himself? It doesn’t make any sense.
So here I am, trying to figure out the riddle of this album. Who deserves credit for a song? How is this any different from Daft Punk or Gorrilaz or even some Kanye West stuff that I’ve never questioned before? And slowly it occurs to me – Who cares? Why does this matter? It’s nice to imagine a world where the noble songwriter struggles against the machine to get credit for their work, a world where the drummer who writes killer music would finally get recognition over the talented but uncreative lead singer. And it would’ve been nice if Mark Ronson was a triumph over that system. But it’s more complicated than that. We can’t know who really wrote Uptown Funk, how much Ronson brought to the table on Daffodils, or if Uptown Funk would’ve happened without either Mars or Ronson.
So then, what are we left with? We are left with music. Awesome, catchy, funky music. Just enjoy it.