It’s obviously no big news that Mark Ronson is the most well-connected man in showbusiness, but on each of his albums there are usually a few names that make you raise an eyebrow in surprise. In the case of Uptown Special, it’s not the likes of Bruno Mars or Stevie Wonder that are startling – that’s surely a given at this stage of Ronson’s career – but in the contribution of the lyricists. For none other than Michael Chabon, Pulitzer Prize winner and one of the most celebrated authors of his generation, has provided the lyrics for over half the tracks on Uptown Special.
Authors dabbling in pop music is nothing new of course – Ben Folds and Nick Hornby created a rather fine album between them a few years ago – but there’s still something a bit startling about Chabon, who specialises in long, complex, multi-layered novels, turning his hand to the three-minute pop song. And while we perhaps shouldn’t hold our breath for a Jonathan Franzen collaboration with Rizzle Kicks, Chabon’s lyrics do mesh rather nicely with Uptown Special’s sleek, sometimes sleazy, down at heel vibe.
Musically, this feels like a bit of a reboot of Ronson’s signature sound. After a couple of years where he seemed to lose some of his self-confidence – resulting in the rather lukewarm Record Collection – he sounds refreshed and revitalised. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the already ubiquitous Uptown Funk, a song that’s practically destined to be this year’s equivalent of Get Lucky, blaring out from bars and shops wherever you move.
Uptown Funk is pure pastiche (as well as the already noted similarity to the theme from children’s TV show The Really Wild Show, there are elements of Morris Day, Prince and the odd Seinfeld bass slap) but Ronson’s magpie tendencies work brilliantly, creating a song that already sounds like an instant classic from the first time you hear it. And it’s the perfect vehicle for Bruno Mars, who doesn’t sound half as irritating here as he does on his own songs, despite some ridiculously self-aggrandizing lyrics like “Got to kiss myself, I’m so pretty”. Not since Ronson’s work with Amy Winehouse and Lily Allen has he found an artist who suits his sound so perfectly.
When Uptown Special is on party mode, it’s fantastic listening. Feel Right is a blistering, foul-mouthed romp with New Orleans rapper Mystikal (sadly not the Goldie Lookin Chain member of the same name) spitting out swear words to exhilarating effect, and the big, brassy funk of I Can’t Lose should surely make a star of vocalist Keyone Starr, a preacher’s daughter from Mississippi who sounds like a ready-made soul diva from the moment she opens her mouth.
It’s when Ronson turns down the tempo that the album starts to flag. Summer Breaking makes for an oddly restrained and muted album opener, and there are several diversions into ’70s soft rock territory during the record’s second half that threaten to destroy the momentum. In Case Of Fire in particular is a bit of a misguided attempt to produce a funked-up Steely Dan, and the collaboration with Miike Snow‘s Andrew Wyatt, Heavy And Rolling, just sounds anodyne and anonymous.
Yet Uptown Special hits the high points more often than not – Kevin Parker of Tame Impala guests on three tracks, including the standout album centrepiece of Daffodils, which beautifully meshes Parker’s trademark psychedelia with Ronson’s more commercial funk, and sets them to a mesmerisingly sleazy tale of a night out on the town, penned by Chabon. Leaving Los Feliz, also featuring the talents of Parker and Chabon, works equally well despite (or maybe because of) the unmistakable nods to George Harrison‘s solo work.
There’s plenty to enjoy in Uptown Special, even if there are some tracks that end up sounding insubstantial and a bit unsatisfying. If you’re looking for a party album, there are songs on here that will sound fresh for the rest of the year and beyond.