Mark Ronson seems to have floated ethereally around the pop landscape for the last few years, a vacant name attached more to gossip blurbs, DJ gigs, and family connection than any real musical output. His mid-decade production work for Amy Winehouse and Lily Allen showed promise, but fizzled before growing into a full voice. Ronson’s 2007 album, Version, which went triple platinum in the U.K. but made little dent elsewhere, was a facile, audience-baiting roundup of famous guests and well-known covers, its exploration of its sources no more exerted than Santana’s. Record Collection, equally propped up by big names but at least containing original material, further establishes Ronson’s credentials while not solving the problem of his ambiguity.
The problem with Ronson the artist (as opposed to Ronson the impresario, who masterfully set up this whole circus of an album) is that there’s no strong personality to define him. A “featuring” credit on songs that include his vocals, which are tamped down into the mix, is necessary to distinguish him from the spates of competing guest voices. As a producer and constructor of songs, he’s capable, often inspired, but he lacks the kind of strong, self-promoting persona that allows DJs to transition into commanding their own albums. As Timbaland’s latest omnibus disaster showed, it may be a good idea to not place too much stress on producer personality. But a defining voice would have given Record Collection a center on which to pivot, and avoided the off-kilter transition from hip-hop pile-ons to spacey tracks featuring Simon Le Bon and Nick Rhodes.
The best songs here are often the most haphazard, with brittle choruses held together by strong guest verses. These include “Lose It (In the End),” whose sugary catch line gets gobbled up by Ghostface Killah’s fierce verses, and “Bang Bang Bang,” a less jagged pairing of Q-Tip with an electro beat. Other pairings are less propitious: “Introducing the Business” includes a strong appearance from MC Pill, but a flat, water-treading beat; “Glass Mountain Trust” pulls D’Angelo out of mothballs only to give him over to a bizarre, nasally Cee-Lo impression; and “The Bike Song,” which finds Spank Rock proclaiming the benefits of green-friendly transportation, is a disaster from start to finish.
Three albums in, it’s hard to imagine a Mark Ronson album not brimming over with a crowd-pleasing, inter-genre collection of guest stars. This kind of broad lineup sustains Record Collection, blessing it with variety and buzz, but it also cements Ronson’s indistinctness, assuring he’ll never develop a voice of his own with such a firm safety cushion in place.