He’s won seven Grammys and an Oscar, he’s tall and handsome, and “Uptown Funk” was his song — yet Mark Ronson remains one of the most low-key stars in the business. Picture him playing guitar or standing at a podium, flashy award in hand, next to Amy Winehouse or Gaga or Miley and you might say, “Oh right!,” but the “Back to Black” and “Star Is Born” collaborator has a surprisingly low profile for such close company.
In the context of this album, Ronson’s relative anonymity works in his favor when it comes to following up a massive global smash like “Uptown Funk” — because so many people assumed it was a Bruno Mars song, there’s commensurately less pressure on Ronson (from the public anyway) to follow it up. And as he said in a recent New York Times profile, he didn’t try, instead creating an album of what he calls “sad bangers” in the wake of a recent marital split.
While he’s far too dismissive of the fine songs and gorgeous sonic atmospheres here, there are no horn sections or bro-downs in sight: The guest vocalists are entirely female — Cyrus, Camila Cabello, Alicia Keys, Lykke Li, Angel Olsen, relative newcomer King Princess and a trio of hit songwriters less known as singers (Diane Gordon, Yebba and Ilsey) — and the vibe is chill without necessarily being low-key.
In fact, the album’s title is perfect. Far from the occasionally beery bluster of 2015’s “Uptown Special,” this one is more of a wine or relaxed mixed-drink outing: Think Massive Attack or the low-key offerings from their British progeny like Rudimental or Jess Glynne, or even some of Sade’s later work. There’s lots of echo, midtempo beats and distant strings or synths.
Cabello weighs in with what might be the most pop-friendly track here, “Find U Again,” which has a sultry melody, a comfortable groove and a mellifluous, vocoder’ed middle eight, and King Princess continues in a similar vibe and sound with “Pieces of Us.” Cyrus’ Tarantino-esque spaghetti-western opus “Nothing Breaks Like a Heart” works much better in the context of this album than on its own — she remains, oddly, one of the most underrated star singers working today — and indie luminary Angel Olsen veers between deadpan and passionate in a strong showcase for her formidable vocal skill.
Similarly, Yebba shows off her formidable and versatile skills during a three-song stint that dominates the center of the album; Alicia Keys keeps to the chorus of “Truth” and cedes the spotlight to Portland, Oregon rapper The Last Artful, Dodgr (yes that’s one name, Tyler, the Creator-style).
Yet two of the strongest songs here both come from Lykke Li, who is also one of the more underrated yet distinctive singers working today. Her two contributions have some of the strongest melodies on the album, and her breathy, intimate delivery evokes Robyn and is a bullseye for intellipop fans.
As is most of this album. With “Late Night Feelings,” Ronson has served up a perfect post-night-out soundtrack, romantic and intimate — and a real album, with nary a weak track to disrupt the late-night feels (sorry).