The title of Bruno Mars’s debut, Doo-Wops & Hooligans, which at 35 minutes barely qualifies as a long-player and yet still manages to wear out its welcome about halfway through, is the first indication of just how calculated the album is to please just about everybody: part sweet, part sassy, with both halves too safe to be concerned about. It could be that Mars, a somewhat in-demand songwriter before this year saw his star rise, saved his best juvenile-delinquent impulses for collaborator Cee Lo’s frat house-pleasing, Stax-n-Effect anthem “Fuck You,” which he co-wrote. To borrow a phrase from that song, “Fuck You” is an imperfect but endearing Atari (one you’ll tire of once the novelty has worn off), whereas Mars’s debut is a sleek, polished Xbox. It’s state of the art, but to what leavening effect?
Mars, working with his co-hooligans Philip Lawrence and Ari Levine, apparently feels more comfortable risking offense when he’s not delivering the epithets himself. His sound is sunny, fresh, and believably naïve, ensuring that the only way he’s seen as a “hooligan” is in the same sense as a group of ducktail-coiffed, uniform-jacketed hoods would be in any second-rate 1950s drag-racing epic. With Doo-Wops & Hooligans, the word “fuck” gets replaced by “marry”—literally, on the bizarrely syncopated piledriver “Marry You,” a decided reversal of the Cee Lo screed in which Mars insists, “If we wake up and you want to break up, that’s cool.”
You see, Mars keeps letting his big ol’ heart get the best of his worst impulses. In “Grenade,” he assures he would step in front of the song’s title for you, girl. On “Just the Way You Are,” he insists, “When I see your face, there’s not a thing I would change,” even though for some unannounced reason, he claims to know “when I compliment her, she won’t believe me.” Which raises the question: Why won’t she believe him?
Mars is a reasonably intelligent slinger of pop hooks, and one would be forgiven for thinking he intends the effects such elisions create, but then again, there is a track on this album called “The Lazy Song,” in which he paints a portrait of Al Bundy as a young man: “I’ll be lyin’ on the couch, just chillin’ in my Snuggie/Click to MTV so they can ‘Teach Me How to Dougie’/‘Cause in my castle I’m the freaking man.” “Lazy,” “Liquor Store Blues,” and “Our First Time” all sway gently with a hint of reggae swagger, and the album’s penultimate “Count on Me” takes its cue from Israel “Over the Rainbow” Kamakawiwo’ole. All of which is to say that Doo-Wops & Hooligans kicks up no fuss, and shortchanges on its promise of both doo-wop and hooliganism.