The best way to capture the musical essence of Mark Ronson’s fourth album is to imagine each song as the theme to its own TV show. With its mellow, Stevie Wonder-blown harmonica line, for example, opener “Uptown’s First Finale” could score the next great post-"ER” medical drama.
“Summer Breaking” is a ringer for the theme to “Law and Order,” at least in its opening bars: a smooth, professional groove that suggests Steely Dan, yacht rock and police procedurals. “I Can’t Lose” kicks off with a James Brown-suggestive snare rhythm, a would-be intro to an imagined “Late Night With Mark Ronson” show brimming with Saturday evening excitement and exclamatory brass fills.
Throughout “Uptown Special,” producer Ronson, best known for his work with Amy Winehouse on “Back to Black,” crafts solid, instantly catchy pop songs, the kind that strive for an everyman universality while acknowledging a rich past of soul-inspired pop music. The producer has fueled this creation with an unlikely lyricist: Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Michael Chabon, whose lines make up the majority of those penned on the album. That makes for a fascinating listen — and a better read.
As with many of his previous albums, Ronson teams with a roster of vocalists. On earlier records, his singers included Winehouse, Jack White, Simon LeBon and Sean Paul. For this one, he’s harnessed pop-rocker Bruno Mars, New Orleans barker Mystikal, Tame Impala singer Kevin Parker and a variety of instrumentalists, including Wonder, New Orleans brass expert Trombone Shorty, guitarists Carlos Alomar and the late Teenie Hodges, drummer Steve Jordan (on “silky disco high-hat”) and German producer Alexander Ridha, a.k.a. Boys Noize.
Most notably, Ronson commissioned Chabon, whose lyrics fill airy three-minute pop songs with verbal sophistication. The words to “Summer Breaking” imagine the out-all-night cruises of a lost love through “avenues empty as .44 clips/Cargo ships, teen zombies riding their whips.”
The funniest line arrives via Mystikal, whose firecracker of a song “Feel Right” is a rough party anthem with typically ridiculous lyrics about “slapping kittens” and gaseous exhaust (“don’t make me light my butt!”). Near the end, after threatening a detractor with “a knuckle sandwich” — disconcerting given the rapper’s history with domestic violence — Mystikal bemoans his fate: “To make matters worse I gotta go to the studio with Bruno Mars — on another planet/Don’t get mad, I’m just sayin,’” he screams. Did Mystikal just throw shade? Perhaps. But the next track, the tight hit “Uptown Funk,” features Mars.
The big questions? Will pop fans care that the author of “The Yiddish Policeman’s Union” made up many of the lyrics? Will Chabon’s literary admirers find Ronson’s commercial pop leanings beneath them? “Uptown Special” thrives on such dissonance.