“When we started the record, I was like, ‘I’m never singing another ballad again,’” Bruno Mars told Rolling Stone of his upcoming Unorthodox Jukebox album. “But that came from the gut – it’s the most honest, real thing I’ve ever sang.” “That” would be “When I Was Your Man,” the big breakup ballad found in the middle of the Jukebox track list, and certainly one of the rawer songs Bruno has recorded—though not so raw that it lacks his professional songcraft and ability to hit show-stopping high notes.
The song starts out dangerously close to “Drops of Jupiter” territory with its rolling piano riff and near-scat vocal cadence, but luckily, there are no fried chicken or soy latte lyrics to be found here. Rather, “When” is your classic shoulda-done-better post-breakup ballad, featuring Bruno lamenting his current single state (“Same bed but it feels just a little bit bigger now / Our song on the radio but it don’t sound the same”) and his prior failure to do right by his woman “I shoulda bought you flowers / And held your hand / Shoulda gave you all my hours / When I had the chance.” The song cleverly saves the title phrase for the final chorus, as Bruno changes all the things he “shoulda” done into things he hopes his ex’s new man does for her, concluding “Do all of the things I should have done / When I was your man.”
Unlike the orchestral grandeur of the previously released “Young Girls,” “When I Was Your Man” goes minimal with the musical accompaniment, featuring just Bruno and his piano, sounding halfway between an Alicia Keys ballad and Prince’s “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore.” It’s a good look for Bruno, and “When” is ultimately a much more satisfying, less ostentatious ballad than “Girls”—though maybe the lyrics are a little too clichéd to result in a classic soul ballad the way Bruno seems to be going for. (Alas, there are only so many songs that can use details like hearing an old song on the radio or conversing to mutual friends as indicators of heartbreak before they start to lose some of their meaning.)
Still, nobody puts a song like this over quite like Bruno, and when he hits the big high note on the song’s bridge—”I’ll be the first to say that I was WRO-O-O-O-ONG“—it’s about as striking a moment as you’re likely to hear on a pop record this year. It might be a little too perfect to be as devastating as a song like “Someone Like You,” but it might be a big hit just the same, and it’s guaranteed to absolutely slay in a live set.