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Michael Bublé sings with a fresh perspective in 'To Be Loved'

MusicEntertainmentDavid FosterReese Witherspoon

On a faux-suburban street on the Universal Studios back lot, Michael Bublé was preparing to dodge a series of explosions, part of a recent pyro-heavy video shoot for his single, "It's a Beautiful Day."

So you might've expected the Canadian crooner — known for a string of platinum-selling standards albums including 2011's "Christmas," which was that year's second-biggest commercial hit — to have some fire-related questions for the crew. For instance: Where do I stand to avoid being burned?

Instead, he only wanted to know one thing from the assistant holding his cellphone: "Did my wife call?"

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Long the precocious boy wonder of retro-big-band pop, Bublé at 37 appears finally — hold on to your fedora — to have grown up. This week his surprising new album, "To Be Loved," debuted at No. 1. And in August his wife, the Argentine actress and model Luisana Lopilato, is due to give birth to the couple's first child.

"Something like that, it puts everything in perspective," Bublé said of his impending fatherhood. As he waited for a camera to be set, he tapped out a message to Lopilato, who was overseas working on a movie. "It makes you say, 'OK, I can be brave about my music because what's really important now is this other thing.'"

"Brave," as Bublé knows, is not the first word many have used to describe his earlier records, with their lush renditions of classics like "Cry Me a River" and "I've Got the World on a String," along with cheery, soft-focus originals such as "Home" and "Haven't Met You Yet." Though he was young, the music seemed designed to the polite specifications of an older audience, which is precisely what the singer won.

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"When his manager called and said, 'Michael Bublé wants to do some recordings with you,' nobody in my band knew who he was," said Gabriel Roth of the Dap-Kings, the hipster-approved Brooklyn soul crew that backs Bublé for several tracks on "To Be Loved." "Then everybody started asking their parents, and they all knew him."

Bublé's trick on "To Be Loved," which he made with the producer Bob Rock, is that the album feels more vibrant at the same time that it feels more mature. He's still doing standards — the record has "Young at Heart" and "Something Stupid," here a duet with Reese Witherspoon — but there are also tart, seemingly heartfelt R&B tunes that dial down the high-concept staginess.

"This record is easier for me to listen to without cringing," Bublé said. "I mean, I don't want to put down my previous stuff. But this feels so much more authentic."

Rock, who's also worked with Metallica and Mötley Crüe, said "To Be Loved" is "a little edgier, a little more rock 'n' roll" and credited Bublé's confidence in his decisions as an artist. "It's kind of the same thing Metallica had on the 'Black Album'" — the metal band's tuneful 1991 smash — "though obviously with a different kind of music," he added with a laugh.

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According to Bublé, the disc exercises a creative license paid for by the tens of millions of albums he's sold. "I feel like I've earned the right to make the record I wanted to make," he said. "I came in as a boy, and I'm a man now."

That's a familiar narrative among other singers with the kind of wholesome, parent-friendly appeal Bublé hasn't abandoned quite yet. Think of Josh Groban, whose last two albums —including this year's "All That Echoes," featuring a lead single called "Brave" — have moved away from the glossy pop-classical sound that made him a star.

Both men started out as protégés of the producer David Foster but have left his tutelage in recent years, describing their need to establish their own identities.

"David's a genius, but he likes perfection, and philosophically that's different from what moves me," Bublé said.

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What's refreshing about Bublé, scheduled to begin a U.S. arena tour in September, is the sharp self-awareness with which he's executing the transition. Performing Tuesday on "Dancing With the Stars," he seemed almost to be rolling his eyes as he delivered a jumpy rendition of "Come Dance With Me."

And when he called me for a follow-up conversation after his video shoot, the singer literally couldn't wait to puncture the illusion of friendliness so many stars work to cultivate.

"Hello, it's Michael Bublé," he said, "calling to promote my record."

Even "It's a Beautiful Day," the bouncy single with the antidepressant title, ends up being a poison pill, as Bublé glories in how relieved he is that "you're the one who got away."

"I've heard people say my stuff is safe, but this was the opposite of that," he said. "Not that I ever wanted to turn 180 degrees and pull away from the 40 million people who've invested in me. But I had to show some growth for my own sake." Bublé's voice went into let-me-level-with-you mode.

"Trust me, we had the conversations about making a commercial product as opposed to an indulgent art object. And I honestly tried to straddle that line."

mikael.wood@latimes.com

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