If Mark Ronson’s appeal is mounted on the mix of an enviable contacts folder and a genuine panache for pastiche, his comeback album is quintessentially Ronson-esque, for better or worse. Almost 10 years after he forged his fame and infamy – critics soon had it in for him – on the back of 1960s soul revivalism, he broadens his reach here to add funk and psych sounds, presumably to keep his new pitch from curdling as quickly as his repeat visits to the latte-soul bar did. An album of fresh pleasures is the pay-off, but don’t come looking to it for substance.
There’s nothing wrong with assembling a pop album like a DJ set, of course, and Ronson assembles judiciously. In a canny appointment, Wonder Boys author Michael Chabon writes vividly phrased lyrics. Stevie Wonder’s joyous harmonica brightens the album’s opener and closer, while Bruno Mars has fun with the “Oops Up Side Your Head”/Prince hybrid of “Uptown Funk”. Elsewhere, Tame Impala frontman Kevin Parker’s limpid vocals on three hypnotic entries proves Ronson never misses a trend, in this case one of psychedelia’s frequent resurgences.
With a James Brown-channelling Mystikal, Miike Snow’s Andrew Wyatt, Ronson’s wing-man Jeff Bhasker and lively melodies smartly deployed, Uptown Special never dawdles long enough to drag. But nor does it dig deep enough to make much impact. “I Can’t Lose” is a fine showcase for newcomer Keyona Starr; but, despite having scoured 30 American churches to find a new, Chaka Khan-ish singer, Ronson lets her lead on just one song. Any more, presumably, would call for keener engagement than his fun, frothy but surface-skimming return can offer.Reuse content