It might have a core of ultra-rich high-calorie cheese, but the throwback song is a very specific and carefully calibrated art form.
It must evoke and transcend the era it’s reviving in an affectionate or hilarious fashion (or both); it has to be a great song as well as a nostalgia trip for those who remember, and a vicarious saunter through a previous decade for those who don’t. Equally, the timing has to be right: You don’t want to bring back something that doesn’t feel particularly fresh or relevant at that moment (the standard 20-year nostalgia cycle is a reliable benchmark, if not necessarily a rule). Songs ranging from Childish Gambino’s “Redbone” and Lenny Kravitz’s “It Ain’t Over ’til It’s Over” (both nods to early ’70s R&B) to Olivia Rodrigo’s “Good 4 U” (early aughts pop-punk) and Billy Joel’s ’50s-inspired “Uptown Girl” and “The Longest Time” (sorry!) are all stellar examples of the art.
The throwback album is a monumentally more difficult thing to pull off: The artist has to follow the above guidelines for a standard album’s length without the conceit — which is hard enough to get away with for the length of a song — growing, well, old.
All of which is a long-winded way of leading up to the fact that Silk Sonic — aka multiplatinum pop-R&B singer Bruno Mars and rapper Anderson .Paak — have taken the concept to a whole new realm with “An Evening With Silk Sonic,” a wink-laden blast of early ’70s soul that they’ve launched like a contemporary project, complete with a smash debut single, “Leave the Door Open” (performed at the Grammy Awards earlier this year, it went on to top the Billboard Hot 100 in April).
Anyone who knows or loves early 1970s R&B will have a goofy grin on their face throughout this entire album, which plays out like an awesome game of spot-the-reference: You’ll find nods to songs like “Jungle Boogie,” “Fire” and “Love Rollercoaster”; groups like the O’Jays, the Chi-Lites, the Sty- listics, the Ohio Players, the Gap Band and Kool & the Gang; angelic backing vocals, ludicrously lush strings and horns, baby-I’m-down-on-my-knees testifying; wacka-wacka guitars and tinkling glockenspiels. There are even a few cameos from one of the era’s originators, P-Funk bassist and iconic solo artist Bootsy Collins.
The songs span jams like the rollerena anthem “Skate” (released last summer with a very summery roller-skating-themed video) and several slow-burners, including “Leave the Door Open” and the closing “Blast Off,” which includes lyrics as period-specific as the music: “Let’s tiptoe to a magical place / Blast off and kiss the moon tonight / And watch the world go crazy from outer space.” Other priceless one-liners include “In a room full of dimes, you’d be a hundred dollars” and “You smell better than a barbecue” (both from “Skate”). Inevitably, there’s a bedroom ballad with some heavy female breathing and pillow talk (the steamy “After Last Night”).
The only song that doesn’t sound like a blast from a Rhino Records compilation or some obsessive British crate-digger’s playlist is the .Paak-powered “777” — naturally, the album’s seventh track — largely because he raps most of the way through it; the music is a straight Gap Band funk. Similarly, the groove veers into the ’80s on occasion — there are a couple of funky or flute-y dashes of vintage Michael Jackson.
Even though both Mars and .Paak were born a decade after this music was dominating FM radio, it’s clearly in their blood: Mars, who created a vin- tage-sounding classic with Mark Ronson in 2014 with “Uptown Funk,” probably played a lot of songs from the period as a kid in his family’s band, and .Paak — a blazing drummer as well as a strong rapper and singer — recorded an imaginative all-covers EP in 2013 called “Cover Art.” A ’70s soul shake is also due to Dernst Emile II (aka D’Mile), who co-produced the album with Mars, co-wrote every song and plays multiple instruments.
Wisely, at just a half hour in length, the album doesn’t outstay its welcome, and although not every song is great, the vibe carries through from end to end — and once it’s over there’s no way you’re not playing it again. Whether you want to rock the boat or rock your baby, ride the love train or the love roller coaster, or boogie with love Jones or me and Mrs. Jones, “An Evening With Silk Sonic” will take you there.