Bruno Mars – review

Hammersmith Apollo, London

For further proof that pop is now dominated by female artists, see last week's album chart. Eight of the 10 bestsellers are by women. All are solo performers, among them the late Amy Winehouse and her equally forthright, considerably tougher, offspring Adele, as well as attention-seeking Lady Gaga and her own, more wholesome, doppelganger Jessie J. The all-powerful Beyoncé makes an appearance, naturally, with the apparently inferior sex represented by Watch the Throne, a collaboration between Beyoncé's husband, Jay-Z, and Kanye West.

It's an album that sounds like a couple of millionaire veterans taking a victory lap, although, like many successful businessmen, they're canny enough to employ keen young talent in order to remain at the top. Hence the duo's next single, "Lift Off", ropes in Bruno Mars, the only other male to feature in the top 10.

Mars's debut album, Doo-Wops & Hooligans, sits at number eight and, although only 25 years old, he's the songwriter of the moment. Born Peter Hernandez, he's been enjoying quite the purple patch, his solo success teed up by membership of the Smeezingtons, the writing and production trio behind Cee-Lo Green's "F**k You!", Flo Rida's "Right Round", B.o.B's "Nothin' on You" and other hit singles on both sides of the Atlantic. Such is Mars's ubiquity that in 2010 he had a hand in songs for both the Winter Olympics and World Cup. Should the United Nations require a theme tune he'd no doubt knock together something suitable while the kettle boils.

His skill is an ease with both old‑fashioned songcraft and hip‑hop swagger. He's also an uncanny mimic, something partly explained by his early CV: Elvis impersonator at the age of four, singer of classic doo-wop tunes for tourists in his native Hawaii, teenage prodigy who copied old footage of James Brown then fell in love with more contemporary R&B.

It's not just that he pulls together disparate elements of pop history at will, he's also fearless, and shameless with it. He takes to the stage to the kind of prize-fighter fanfare usually employed by megastar rappers before being hit by the spotlight, his cocked hat referencing Michael Jackson, guitar slung at a dramatic, Prince-like angle. The band features a horn section plucked from a soul revue, but the only backing singer doubles as Mars's hip-hop-style sidekick. Halfway through, they digress, slipping into a few note-perfect bars of Aaliyah's elegant ballad "Rock the Boat". It's a tune that's a decade old and, given that most of the over-25s in the audience are here to accompany their children, can't be for anything but the band's own benefit.

As a performer, Mars makes a small amount of boy-next-door charm go some distance, which befits a man who was busted for possession of cocaine earlier this year yet is still, somehow, making a guest appearance in the next series of Sesame Street. So while his take on traditional song-and-dance shtick is proficient, his clean-cut blandness and myriad talents can sometimes collide in an unpleasant, teeth-grating manner. He might be keen to announce, during "Runaway Baby", that he's doing his James Brown dance moves, but he may as well be auditioning for The Blues Brothers musical (although he'd be certain to bag the lead role).

But there's too much showbiz polish for the show to be souped-up karaoke. Nor could you quarrel with the effectiveness of his core talent: songwriting. The final 15 minutes, which takes in biggest hits "Grenade" and "Just the Way You Are", is basically one long, smartphones-in-the-air singalong.

Yet hardly any of the evening lingers in the memory. This might be down to Mars being a songwriter for hire, someone whose work prizes ability over personality. Doo-Wops & Hooligans is unusually eclectic for a mainstream record, hopping from light reggae to Coldplay-lite and, in the case of recent hit "The Lazy Song", even outright novelty. Pretty much any track could be covered by a variety of top 40 artists, both now and in the near future. Indeed, it seems probable that at least one or two of his tunes will be slaughtered by an excitable young hopeful before the new series of The X Factor is over. He certainly has enough hits for the show's producers to schedule a "Bruno Mars week" without fear of it seeming repetitive – but who'd remember the man who wrote them?


Gareth Grundy

The GuardianTramp

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