Spending an hour with Bruno Mars, one gets the distinct sense that the 27-year-old pop star was born late.
There's his sartorial style, for starters. Arriving at his record company's Midtown offices to discuss his new album, Unorthodox Jukebox, out today, Mars wears his trademark fedora and two gold necklaces, establishing a sort of Sinatra-meets-Saturday Night Fever vibe. His manners also are old-school dapper; he gallantly pauses to let a female reporter descend a staircase before he does, then asks her if it's OK if he smokes. Granted permission, he grabs a cigarette and a can of Coca-Cola -- Classic, of course.
Then Mars begins listing his musical influences, and the first names that come up are performers who peaked decades before he was a gleam in his parents' eyes: Elvis (Presley, not Costello). Chuck Berry. Little Richard. Jerry Lee Lewis. "Guys like Jackie Wilson and James Brown -- they were like, 'Watch me dance; I'm going to set this whole place on fire,'" Mars says. "You see that as a kid, you're just blown away."
Acknowledging the past has served Mars well. The first single from his 2010 pop-soul debut, Doo-Wops & Hooligans, shared its title with a 35-year-old Billy Joel hit. Mars' Just the Way You Are -- a baby-smooth, hip-hop-laced profession of everlasting love -- topped the pop charts and earned him a Grammy for best male pop vocal performance.
A follow-up, the similarly pining (if more angst-ridden) Grenade, also went to No. 1, helping propel Doo-Wops to sales of 1.8 million. While not exactly Taylor Swift or Adele turf, that's an impressive figure for a new artist in the 21st century, particularly a male singer/songwriter, a breed that hasn't been in abundance in the pop stratosphere lately.
A Retrofitted 'Jukebox'
With Jukebox, Mars is looking to the future, but without forgetting his old heroes. "I'm going to be singing songs like Just the Way You Are and Grenade until the day I die," he says. "But it was time for me to write new songs. I've got to have fun when I work, and for me, that means trying new things, expanding the sound."
The taut, rhythmically charged first single, Locked Out of Heaven -- currently at No. 2 on USA TODAY's Top 40 chart -- has inspired comparisons to The Police, a band Mars has expressed admiration for. On other tunes, his fluid tenor takes on a rough urgency that evokes the edgier work of Michael Jackson, another favorite.
Also notable are the lyrics, which at times defy the wholesome image established by Doo-Wops. "Your sex takes me to paradise," Mars sings on Heaven, while Moonshine was written after a night of "drinking and having a great time," Mars says. Booze and lust inform the darker, heavier Gorilla.
RollingStone.com senior editor Monica Herrera figures that Mars is "trying to toughen up" his image a bit, to sing about "the kind of love that carries a bit of danger," citing the piano-fueled post-breakup lament When I Was Your Man.
And Mars' flair for melody -- he helped craft hits for others before his breakthrough, as part of the songwriting/production team the Smeezingtons -- is a "signal that he could have longevity," Herrera says, though not a guarantee of it. "The question will be how much personal affinity his fans develop for him. It's harder for male pop stars to make that connection these days -- male pop stars older than Justin Bieber, anyway."
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