WXTJ Writes! by Paul Karhnak: “An Evening With Silk Sonic” reviewed
Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak appear to have mastered quantum superposition, because they exist simultaneously in 2021 and the 1970s on the new album An Evening With Silk Sonic. The album is a fascinating instrument-by-instrument recreation of classic funk that incorporates both the obvious cliches and the more subtle touches that distinguish the 1970s in the musical canon. The tracks are complete with bright vocal harmonies, driving drum grooves, fuzz and wah-wah guitars, and even xylophones and other pitched percussion. Outside of Mars’s instantly recognizable voice and Anderson .Paak’s swaggering, cool-confident rapping there are few obvious markers to separate the album from its inspiration, and none of them are too jarring or incongruous. The project is thorough and sincere, resolving the funk and disco of “old” with the contemporary R&B and rap of “new.”
“Silk Sonic Intro” gives off a similar feel as Mars’s previous opening track, “24K Magic,” from his album of the same name. Whereas “24K Magic” segues into synth-driven Minneapolis sound, however, “Silk Sonic Intro” brings its exalted “lock[ed] groove” in to instantly transport the listener to the 1970s. The presence of Bootsy Collins, who sets the scene atop ethereal synthesizers echoing his own work with Parliament-Funkadelic, significantly enhances the immersion.
Meanwhile, “Leave The Door Open” demonstrates the polish of not only Silk Sonic’s funk broadsides, but their balladeering too. Slick guitars, tight and syncopated drum fills, finger snaps, and delicate vocal harmonies combine 1970s soul and contemporary R&B approaches. Again, Mars and Anderson carefully reside in both the 1970s and 2021, adhering closely to familiar styles while still allowing the passage of time to register. The song ends with a stratospheric modulation and a lovely outro section whose atmosphere perhaps takes literally being “over the moon” with a lover while refraining from being over-the-top. Though Silk Sonic cycles through all of the 1970s soul calling cards on “Leave The Door Open,” the song is still believable, and extends its inspiration to neither exhaustion nor parody.
Mars’s and Anderson .Paak’s attention to detail leaves no stone unturned in a delightful songwriting method. While all tracks exemplify this approach, “Fly As Me” is a particularly good example to profile. A slightly overdriven guitar riff—itself an instant earworm in the vein of melodies from Ohio Players’s “Fire” and Maze with Frankie Beverly’s “Before I Let Go”—establishes the song above a syncopated, bustling drum beat. A repeating feature in the introduction as well as the choruses, though, is the addition of a wah-wah guitar on the off-beat of the occasional measure. This is not strictly necessary, as “Fly Like Me” would probably have been a fine song without it, but touches like these make the songs fantastic. Mars and Anderson .Paak are not merely formulaic, rather recreating the 1970s with a new and refreshing flair.
Attempting to list the album’s highlights would involve discussing half of the album. Another characteristic effort, at least, can be found in “Smokin Out The Window,” a dejected breakup song that scorns a flippant former lover. Relying again on Bootsy Collins as an elder statesman of funk, the track instantly segues into a Mars-led recitation of grievances before Anderson leads the listener into the chorus. The song’s chorus itself is an enthralling journey through the hallmarks of 1970s funk: driven by escalating drums, soaring vocal melodies crescendo from a powerful hook to accentuate the singer’s sorrow. As on many other tracks, the instrumentation fits like a glove, and the music seems neither too sparse nor too crowded; the feel of the 1970s is thus ideally recreated with fidelity.
The nooks and crannies throughout An Evening With Silk Sonic make the album effortlessly replayable. At 31 minutes, the work itself is compact and enjoyable. Even if the style of the 1970s can only be reconfigured in so many ways before coming off as stale, An Evening With Silk Sonic does not run out of ideas; the album seems to have just the right number of tracks and does not have too many or too few.
Some reviewers, in a similar appraisal as they had for Mars’s previous album 24K Magic (2016), characterize An Evening With Silk Sonic as charming but ultimately empty nostalgia. I don’t see the recreation of the 1970s on An Evening With Silk Sonic as a problem, though, especially since Mars and Anderson have made no effort to hide their intentions with the album. An Evening With Silk Sonic may not contribute an “original” take on music, but Silk Sonic at least does something close to it by combining funk instrumentation and songwriting with contemporary rap genre norms. Mars and Anderson walk the line as they create their sonic world and do not merely exhaust the 1970s’ strict confines; in fact, Anderson’s rap vocals are the clearest example of them updating funk for a new audience.
Nostalgia is not a problem in and of itself. Songs like Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl” and Joe Jackson’s “Happy Ending,” which themselves harkened back to 1960s pop, soul, and Motown from a 1980s perch, are now fondly remembered. The central conceit of “Uptown Girl,” “Happy Ending,” and similar nostalgia-based projects is to recreate a past era with nods to a new audience. In fact, “Happy Ending” bluntly states this with the line “It’s not so easy / it’s ‘84 now.” Trying to judge “Uptown Girl” (or its 1950s-1960s nostalgia concept album An Innocent Man), “Happy Ending,” or An Evening With Silk Sonic based on criteria which prioritize experimental value misses the point. These nostalgia projects of past and present can be enjoyable for their own sake without being saddled with the burden of making a strictly new contribution to their music contexts.
An Evening With Silk Sonic, by Bruno Mars, Anderson .Paak & Silk Sonic, is available to stream on Apple Music and Spotify. Highlights include “Leave The Door Open,” “Fly As Me,” “Smokin Out The Window,” “Skate,” and “Blast Off.”
by Paul Karhnak, who is a co-host of “Deep Cuts n’ Donuts” on Saturdays from 12-2pm. He, true to form, is a saxophonist who likes jazz, but has unfortunately listed to so much of it that he can’t hear “wrong” notes anymore.
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