Glance back over many of pop culture’s recent magical moments, and you’ll see one name pop up over again: Mark “Mr. Midas” Ronson, that guy standing in the back of the photo like Leonard Zelig in Ray Bans. His ubiquity is spooky — cue a goldfinger montage starring Adele, Christina Aguilera, Paul “Fab Macca” McCartney, Duran Duran, Rufus Wainwright, Lily Allen, Bruno Mars, Robbie Williams, George Formby. Ronson’s all over ’em. He even took the Smiths to places Morrissey couldn’t reach, namely number two in the singles chart. Ronson’s everywhere! Look under the bed!
In his youth, his BFF was Sean Lennon, he dated Quincy Jones’ daughter, and his stepdad’s Mick Jones! (No not that one, the one out of Foreigner.) Y’know that photo of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes’ wedding you keep over your fireplace? Check the background — the DJ is Ronson! That’s all gravy, though, when you’ve co-produced Amy Winehouse’s legendary Back to Black and got 20 million copies to boost your music CV.
Uptown Special arrives in the afterglow of another “Midas Moment”. The album’s lead single, “Uptown Funk”, is apparently the only song on planet earth right now. From Kansas to Kazakhstan, “Uptown Funk” rules. Its deftly daft, delirious and incessant, booty-shaking blast of brass ‘n’ bravado has the power to incite mass euphoric dancing wherever it is unleashed. Your puny human brain may try to unlock its DNA and deactivate its power — is it the Time’s “The Bird”? Kool and the Gang’s “Get Down On It”? Was Not Was’ “Walk The Dinosaur”? — but resistance is futile.
However, the global domination of “Uptown Funk” may present a conundrum for its Uptown Special crewmates, in that it’s the prettiest star by far. Ronson has recruited the big boys for this outing: Kanye and Beyoncé’s Grammy grabbing producer Jeff Bhasker, Pulitzer prize winner Michael Chabon on lyrics, guest spots by Stevie Wonder, Bruno Mars, Mystikal and Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker. That being said, the full album experience feels sadly less than the sum of its parts, too often lacking “Funk”, “Fun”, or “Memorable tunes”. It’s hard to envisage any of Special‘s siblings joining its firstborn at the toppermost of the poppermost, or being of comfort during a particularly stormy night at sea.
You may leave Ronson’s fourth solo album pining for a new Tame Impala record, as it’s the three Parker-starring tracks that intrigue the most. After a brief scene setter featuring Stevie and his wonder of a harmonica in a “blink-and-you’ll-miss-it” cameo, Parker’s “Summer Breaking” kicks off proceedings on a high. As with all of his contributions here, “Summer” simmers like mid ’70s July, sunroof down and the smell of good times floating across a sizzling sidewalk. A cool breeze with Steely Dan, the Doobie Brothers, and the Isleys’ fuzzy guitar drifting from your convertible’s 8-track. “In the back of some prettyboy’s ride / You get high”. Dazed youth lost and free in the summer, in the city.
“Daffodils” is better still; dirtier and groovier with ice cold lemonade synths, the track boasts a hypnotic head bobber with an infectious, “Elephant”-sized guitar riff buzzin’ like a bumblebee inside your brain. “Drop another daffodil” it exhales as its looping bounce slowly impairs your ability to operate heavy machinery. Parker’s last ride on the triptych is the funky Beatles-esque “Leaving Los Feliz”, which sounds like a kaleidoscope mutation of Julian Lennon’s “Too Late for Goodbyes” and Ronson’s own “Bike Song”. A jolly skip over the velvet rope toward the VIP lounge to join the “Hipsters” and “Scenesters”, “My studied aloofness is proof I belong so I pass”. As colorful as these are, however, one can’t help but suspect that Parker has slightly dialed down the delirium. Not tame, but not full Impala either.
Though “Uptown Funk” and Parker’s joints are clear highlights, there are some other enjoyable moments. Ronson’s new protégé, Keyone Starr, could be a keeper given the right material. “I Can’t Lose” is a tantalizing teaser for her heavenly Chaka Khan-sized vocals, even if it does rotate a little repetitively. Uplifting, upbeat and riding a fatback Earth, Wind & Fire-esque stomping bassline into an admirably demented sax solo, Starr arrives box-fresh and born to fly. “I can’t lose when I’m around you”, she sparkles. “In Case of Fire” is pleasant enough too, although it’s clearly hiding Stevie’s “Higher Ground” under its flimsy disguise. The mean streets confessional of Adderall, Michelada, “big dreams n’ bad girls” adds spark though. Bhasker’s sweet falsetto contrasts with the weight of memory and melancholy: “You start fires / That you just can’t put out”. There’s a noirish Bright Lights, Big City narrative laced inside Uptown Special, but it appears too inconsistently to truly weave a cohesive, compelling story arc.
It’s a shame then that whenever Special starts to move on up, it slips back down. “Heavy & Rolling” is an saccharine “smoove” slice of soft-focus soul with synthetic Studio 54 sheen, with plenty of champagne, furs, plastic smiles, Chic basslines, and swish cabaret keys. It’s music for billionaires on yachts. A cheesy excursion “To the highline or the heart of the sun” with dodgy lyrics, “You deal in ducats / You deal in illusion…you confuse war and prostitution”. Bret Easton Ellis or Patrick Bateman? You decide.
Elsewhere, the empty centerpiece “Crack In the Pearl” feels like a toilet break for the main cast whilst the stagehands redress the set. Reprising the themes that bookend the record, it drags drearily and is unconvincingly melodramatic. “Coming out of the Sunset Marquis / Before you left to deal the white”, it broods like Miami Vice: The Musical. If once isn’t enough, there’s a sequel in “Crack In The Pearl II”. For the third — third — time, someone theatrically sighs “Nine exits north of Las Vegas!” as if it’s of vital importance. Most likely, you’ll just shrug and put “Uptown Funk” back on.
“Pearl” is heavenly, however, compared to “Feel Right”. In it, the charming, self-proclaimed “Artist” Mystikal contemplates his “Cock”, “Butt”, and “Bitch”, before repeatedly exclaiming “Muthafucker!” over a generic James Brown breakbeat. Desperately depressing nonsense, “Feel Right” sours the soulful spirit of the album.
Uptown Special isn’t quite special enough. Whilst the crowds drawn in by the all-conquering “Uptown Funk” are unlikely to tear up their seats and form an angry, torch-wielding mob, many may leave feeling underfed, underwhelmed and yes, “underfunked”. It’s slick, glossy, and expensive, but lift the hood and there’s a scarcity of solid, original, or memorable material inside. Even the legendary King Midas can’t get his potion in motion with such slim pickings; no amount of shouting of “Muthafucker” or lovely voices reminding us to turn “Nine exits north of Las Vegas” can remedy that. Still the production’s great.