It’s rarely a good idea to read too much into an artist claiming that their next album will contain the music that they’ve always wanted to make, because artists are always claiming that. It’s like an athlete saying that they’re coming into the season in the best shape of their career—it’s just good PR, and it ends up actually being true about the same (relatively low) percentage of the time.
But listening to Bruno Mars’ “Locked Out of Heaven”—which sounds from the title like it should be a melodramatic “Grenade”-style ballad but is actually anything but—it seems like his claim about new album Unorthodox Jukebox “represent[ing] my freedom” might have actually been legit. Really, “Locked Out of Heaven” does sound like the music Mars always wanted to make—hyper-energetic, funky, slightly retro without sounding fetishistic, and just two tons of fun. Listening to it, you just picture Bruno performing it with his shades and backup dancers and having the biggest smile ever on his face.
The song has a muscular shuffle to it that’s instantly more aggressive than any of the Doo-Wops singles besides “Runaway Baby,” and rather than the obvious soul throwback of that song, this one goes for more of a new wave energy, with a choppy guitar and bass combo that hits halfway in between The Romantics’ “Talking in Your Sleep” and The Police’s “Roxanne.” To prevent it from sounding too old-fashioned though, each line of the verses is also injected with a squeaky one-note synth riff that sounds like it belongs on an A-Trak song, upping the excitement of an already fairly invigorating song.
Really, there are so many musical ideas going on in the song that you’re almost exhausted by the time you get to the chorus. Perhaps it’s for that reason that Mars reigns it in a bit on the refrain rather than taking it to the next level, slowing the song’s shuffle down to a “Just the Way You Are”-like marital drum rhythm and upping the intensity on the synths as he songs the hook: “Baby you make me feel like / I’ve been locked out of heaven / For too lo-o-ong.” It’s the tiniest bit disappointing that Mars doesn’t just totally blow the doors open with the chorus, but with the build-up on the synths and his own emotional intensity keeping the song moving, it’s hardly a total letdown either.
For such an obviously unique musical character as Bruno Mars—how many other Hawaiian-bred pop stars with a classic doo-wop fixation and a history of impersonating Elvis have we had over the years?—the singles off his first album did occasionally feel like they were toning down Bruno’s rough edges to pander his sound to the Top 40. Well, no more: “Locked Out of Heaven” is 100% pure Peter Gene Hernandez, and the result is one of the most fun, dynamic and exciting pop singles of the year. Please don’t go back to the MOR ballads anytime soon, Bruno.