To the rest of the world, Bruno Mars is as harmless as a puppy in a fedora, an old-fashioned entertainer welcome at any mother’s dinner table. Mars apparently doesn’t see himself that way, though. On his sophomore album, Unorthodox Jukebox, the baby-faced singer unleashes his inner bad boy, losing his mind over girls of a questionable age on “Young Girls,” blowing his royalties at the strip club on “Money Make Her Smile,” and, on the pelvic-thrust rocker “Gorilla,” fucking like an animal between boasts about having “a body full of liquor and a cocaine ticker”—an apparent reference to the 2010 Vegas coke bust the rest of the world has forgotten about. That Mars goes out of his way to highlight his one run-in with the law speaks to how hard he’s working to uproot his chaste image. It’s a testament to how fundamentally good-natured he is that he doesn’t succeed in the slightest.
With its ill-fitting Bon Jovi moves and forced hedonism, “Gorilla” is one of Unorthodox Jukebox’s few overt misfires, but even at the album’s best, Mars feels like a kid playing dress up. He does an uncanny Sting on the tropical Police homage “Locked Out Of Heaven,” an impressive Michael Jackson on “Natalie,” and capably sells himself as a one-man Maroon 5 on the disco-spiked “Treasure.” And though he stops short of attempting a Bruce Springsteen homage or dropping a full-on rap verse—he’s got to save something for the next album—he throws himself into the dub reggae track “Show Me” with complete conviction, channeling Sublime’s Bradley Nowell as he toasts over sampled air horns.
At just 10 songs and a brisk 34 minutes, the album breezes by, though it’s over-sung and produced to within an inch of its life (even more so than Mars’ 2010 debut, Doo-Wops And Hooligans). Ultimately, it’s that relentless theatricality that’s Mars’ undoing. Where the artists he imitates throughout Unorthodox Jukebox were all singular presences, Mars rarely sounds like anything more than a well-rehearsed reality-competition singer eager to dazzle on theme week. He’s an undeniable talent, desperately searching for an identity to claim as his own.