Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak's universally likable new release is destined to be overplayed into classic status.
Spending an evening with Silk Sonic is like stepping onto an elaborately decorated set. One where visions of romance and trifling lovers float by in scenes cast in a honeyed tint, and the stars are in costume, never breaking character, the sparkle on their sunglasses always twinkling even on candlelit nights. The new album from the duo of Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak is, in other words, an exercise in well-crafted, immediately pleasurable artifice. Across a tight nine tracks, An Evening with Silk Sonic offers a showcase of deeply earnest retro soul and funk, a theatrical flashback that often sounds like it really could only work if it were this particular starring pair at the center.
But how did we get this pairing in the first place? It was preceded by the fact that Paak had supported Mars on tour in 2017, but their partnership, when first officially announced earlier this year, nevertheless was at once surprising and completely logical. From a commercial standpoint, Mars is the modern soul pop star whose Super Bowl-level appeal is encapsulated by the fact that everybody and their mothers love him. Meanwhile, Paak has more of an edge to his music and his image; and despite two Grammys under his belt since being plucked out of obscurity by Dr. Dre in 2015, he still hasn’t found the commercial breakthrough that his talent is due.
Yet simultaneously they are two artists of the same stripe: technically gifted vocalists and multi-instrumentalists projecting a sound that has always been indebted to a lineage of soul and who, most importantly, are deeply committed to the idea of being a true capital-p Performer as much as being an artist. Among his devoted fans, Paak is known for being a kind of marathon runner on stage, and Mars is far and away the single most reliable artist that any awards show can plug into a tribute for seemingly any musical icon, from Amy Winehouse to Prince to Little Richard. (The Grammys in 2022 will have a field day with the pair.)
In this sense, An Evening with Silk Sonic, is the perfect vehicle for the two. It’s an album with a throwback sound built for a performer’s performer, where they can come in, give you a good show Copacabana style, and glide on out before things risk falling into schtick — because this is indeed where the album toes the line and ultimately thrives.
Beginning with the echo-y Bootsy Collins’s campy narration on the electric opener “Silk Sonic Intro,” the album is a full-throated time machine to 60s and 70s soul, where declarations of love and heartbreak are intentionally over-the-top — in voice and persona, in lyrics and rich instrumentation. The record works, though, because the two commit fully to their roles, and their talent is so arresting that you gladly surrender yourself to the hammy gimmick of it all. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t sometimes fall on the wrong side of things. “Leave the Door Open” and “Smoking Out the Window” (the better of these two lead singles) have a well-tuned balance of nostalgic soul, while “After the Last Night,” despite some of the album’s most impressively maximalist production, falls too far into the joke and quickly goes from being fun to a tiresome caricature of a sultry seduction joint.
Mostly, though, they strike a perfect balance, likely because it’s just an extension of something Mars, the man who was rocking a pompadour in 2014, has already been toying with for years. This is, undoubtedly, a project that is funneled through his boyhood dreams, an excuse for him to go full-hog on the callback aesthetics he couldn’t fully lean into in the past. In fact, the groovy, delightful “Skate,” particularly the chorus, might be thought of as a more decadent sister version of the one on “Treasure,” or songs from other recent albums.
Yet despite the unabashed dedication to a decades-old vision, the album is a remarkably accessible one, funneled through strong vocal performances and layered, silky smooth hooks. It revives an American sound that pushes buttons subconsciously familiar to practically anyone’s brain. This is a record that more than almost anything in recent memory can be instantaneously recognized as inoffensively likable to all; it’s wedding dance floor music. It’s Grammys-darling music. It’s even Old Navy commercial music.
Of course, mass-market music doesn’t necessarily equate to something bad. If anything the project occupies a rarefied space that is improbably reminiscent of Adele: there is a universally pleasing quality to the music that is destined for broad appeal, but the sheer, unadulterated talent at the heart of it all manages to iron out the possibility of things coming across as being soullessly engineered.
And it cannot be overstated: the talent shines through on every song. There are times when Mars’s vocals might verge on appearing one-note in his persistent belting — until he blows the top off on tracks like “Put on a Smile,” a song that ends up being strikingly tragic with Mars’s anguished vocals. Even on places like the somewhat bland “Fly As Me,” Paak’s rapping showcases a refreshing level of dynamism that separates him from his duet partner.
Sure, the album is bound to become overplayed within months or even weeks. But it’s also rare to be able to recognize in real time what will surely become a catalogue of, for better or worse, ubiquitous standards. You don’t complain when you someone puts quarters into a jukebox full of broad classics everyone knows and has heard a million times — you sit down and enjoy the show.