As I consider the music of the past year, I find a newfound admiration and affection for an '80s throwback I had discounted months ago.
It took me a while, but a Bruno Mars song finally won me over. I had been exposed to the golden-voiced crooner’s output before -- indeed, I had heard liberal portions of the very subject of this post enough times in the past to decide that while it was a decent enough song in spots, I wasn’t waiting with baited breath for its next replay. Fine as a singer as Mars is, his material always struck me as the work of yet another R&B smooth operator fixated with trying on the crown left behind by the dearly departed Michael Jackson, and any inclination to explore deeper was dissuaded by his penchant for garbled lyrical metaphors (don’t get me started on “Grenade”).
It wasn’t until I was held as a captive audience of a radio station being piped into a store that circumstances (and my own boredom) forced me to finally listen to “Treasure” from stem to stern. Though my initial reaction to recognizing its introductory strains was along the lines of, “Oh no, not this song again” (except cruder), Mars’ ‘80s-indebted single wore down my resistance bar by bar. Bit by bit I started to realize just how well-crafted and arranged a song it was and, though unthinkable to myself even moments before, upon its conclusion I found I actually wanted to hear a Bruno Mars song again.
Mind you, my opinion of the man’s work on the whole has not changed one iota. I still have no love for “Just the Way You Are” or “Grenade” or “When I Was Your Man”. Ok, the nervy Police-isms of “Locked Out of Heaven” mark it as an intriguing outlier where his singles are concerned, but it’s still no “Treasure”. In the past, cursory listens to that song had made plain its intentions to replicate early 1980s pop-funk down to the last glittering synth and deftly daubed slap-bass dollop -- not too surprising, really, as it seems every R&B upstart these days feel he or she has to make retro motions to validate their place in the style’s legacy. The window dressing is credible enough to pass a quick inspection from the old-school hall monitor, but what makes “Treasure” feel like some half-forgotten number you may have heard being played on Soul Train 30 years ago is the caliber of the songwriting. Frankly, a lot of modern pop songwriters are maddeningly unadventurous, content with building their wares upon a simple beat and a ringtone-ready hook repeated ad nauseum, and (for understandable reasons, it must be said) averse to crafting busy instrumental segments that might get in the way of a showy singer’s star turn. Even if ceding the spotlight wasn’t a consideration, it takes a lot of talent and energy for a vocalist to keep up with the sort of top-flight musicianship typically expected from R&B records from that era, which makes the temptation to drape a track like “Treasure” in passably-convincing aural signifiers instead of trying to construct an authentic replica strong.
Thankfully, Bruno Mars is game for a full-on time warp on this single. The composition is authentically well-crafted and considered; the music doesn’t just keep a beat, it grooves, stopping and starting and gliding along like the R&B of old. Confident with his own talents and radiating an enthusiastic mood with merely his voice, Mars gets right in there in the band, swaying and bouncing along with them as any funk frontman worth his salt should be able to. Even though it’s ostensibly his show, he truly interlocks with his band and uses its energy and enthusiasm to propel himself onward and upward, peaking with a number of hard-driving crescendos sprinkled throughout the song.
Being a music critic, I find myself having to cast judgmental eye towards my affection for “Treasure”. I wonder: is the reason I like it because it succeeds where no other Bruno Mars song does, or is it because I have a critical weakness for ‘80s funk? I’d like to think it’s largely because of the former, but I’d be lying if the latter had nothing to do with it. Yes, the sound of R&B from the Reagan Administration is something I have unabating affection for, that I have no trouble coping to. In my defense, “Treasure” has been out as a single since May, and ‘80s-isms were plainly evident since then yet had no effect on me. Frankly, it’s just a cracking good track. Though it brings absolutely nothing new to the table, “Treasure” spectacularly resurrects the approach of a bygone era with such aplomb that I cannot ignore it.
So kudos to Bruno Mars, it turns out you’ve finally put out a song I like. Sorry it took me so long to realize how great it is.