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On pop star Bruno Mars' all-too-graphic growing pains

Mission to Mars

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It must be hard to date Peter Gene Hernandez (better known to us as Bruno Mars). If his mood swings in a relationship are anything like the jarring transitions on Unorthodox Jukebox — the pop singer's skillful, diverse and hopelessly sex-obsessed sophomore album — keeping up would seem a fool's errand.

Mars' heart and libido are constantly enthralled by the charms of "Young Girls," and once he chases one down, he wants to make love with the ravenous intensity of a "Gorilla." But he's paranoid that girls are after his cash ("Money Make Her Smile"), and if you break his heart, he's liable to lob vague and disturbing threats about digging you a grave ("Natalie"). Assuming you survive, he'll likely blame himself for the breakup, offering uncomfortable well wishes for your next relationship ("When I Was Your Man"). A girlfriend might provide pleasure so powerful that it makes Mars feel that he had been "Locked out of Heaven," but any woman who puts up with this madness should merit priority seating.

The Bruno Mars singing these songs doesn't sound like the Bruno Mars who took pop culture by storm three years ago. Yes, he's still well-coiffed, decking himself in the same mix of fine suits and Gap-chic casual wear. He still sports shiny shoes with no socks, and he still rocks the trademark fedora atop his enormously curly locks. But the Bruno we first met was an angel-voiced foil for rappers looking to show off their softer side. (See B.o.B.'s "Nothin' on You" or Lil Wayne's "Mirror.") That Bruno stole hearts and Grammy nominations with the earnest, piano-bound, saccharine "Just the Way You Are" and the self-abusing heartbreak of the surging "Grenade." That Bruno, the one on 2010's Doo-Wops & Hooligans, moved almost 2 million copies of his debut LP.

Today, Mars' new songs move with similarly unflagging energy. But they're darker — brashly sensual and often a little violent. The distance between Bruno's endearing image and his newfound musical edge is flirting with dissonance.

"I don't ever want to come out with something safe and get away with, 'It sounds good!' It's got to be more than sounding good," Mars recently told GQ. He was reacting to a question about "Gorilla," a gritty, swaggering funk tune that explodes into Prince-inspired grandeur as the singer yearns for beastly satisfaction: "You'll be banging on my chest / Bang bang, gorilla."

"That one shocked me," Mars continued. "That it turned out the way it did. I haven't done a song like that. And hopefully every album, I'll get that feeling. And shock the world! Shock the world!"

"Gorilla" isn't the only song on Unorthodox Jukebox that would shock those who have followed Mars from the beginning. "Locked out of Heaven" breezes along with a Police-esque reggae-pop riff — but Sting, tantric sex icon that he is, never wrote a love song for a vagina. "Swimming in your water is something spiritual," Bruno coos, reaching for the same boyish enthusiasm that marked previous hits. "I'm born again every time you spend the night." He still thinks "you're amazing just the way you are," but these days, he's focused on different attributes.

Mars' themes might be more mature, but the music hasn't really grown up. As noted by plenty of critics, Unorthodox Jukebox is both more polished and more varied than his debut, spanning Thriller-style funk-pop, disco anthems and lightweight reggae. But the melodies are still bright. The hooks are still unrestrained. The contrast makes Mars' shocking moments feel more than a little uncomfortable.

Take "Natalie." It's a dude-done-wrong rager in the vein of "Billie Jean" or "Dirty Diana." The arrangement is straightforward and kinetic, and Mars delivers his lines with gusto. But his croon can't match Michael Jackson's searing despair. So Bruno seeks to make an impact with his words. "She better sleep with one eye open," he seethes, "Better make sure to lock her doors / 'Cause once I get my hands on her, I'mma ooooh." His threat solidifies in the chorus: "I'm digging a ditch / For this gold-digging bitch."

Such fits of murky misogyny are far from uncommon these days. Drake and The Weeknd have certainly made it work. But those artists intimidate with their music as much as with their words. The Weeknd went so far as to cover "Dirty Diana" a couple years ago. Abel Tesfaye, the singer behind the project, doesn't change a word. He digs into the lines with a serrated howl, finding fury where Michael focused on agony. The arrangement follows suit, opting for savage, fuzz-fueled bass knocks and funeralistic backing vocals.

On songs like "Natalie," Mars strives to sound equally dangerous. But he won't let go of the fetching bravado that brought him fame. The results are confusing, making Bruno seem like a boy who's all too desperate to prove he's a man.

Email Music@nashvillescene.com.

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