Music

On his new album, Late Night Feelings, Mark Ronson has put his mega-hit ‘Uptown Funk’ behind him, choosing instead to make a pop album with surprising emotional depth. By Shaad D’Souza.

Mark Ronson’s Late Night Feelings

British producer Mark Ronson.
Credit: Supplied

How do you follow one of the most successful songs to date? Mark Ronson’s 2014 single “Uptown Funk”, a collaboration with American pop singer Bruno Mars, spent 14 weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100 chart, one of the longest runs. The song was performed at the Super Bowl – with Beyoncé, no less – and it even has a “cultural impact” section on its Wikipedia page.

“Uptown Funk” was the perfect distillation of Ronson’s particular brand of retro revivalism, a piece of ’80s pastiche that spoke to basically every generation in one way or another. You would forgive Ronson for trying to re-create that unlikely ubiquity; there’s no doubt that kind of commercial success is intoxicating. But for Late Night Feelings, his fifth solo album, the British producer has taken a different tack. Across a set of 13 heady heartbreak songs, Late Night Feelings does away with all the trappings of “Uptown Funk” and Ronson’s early work. This record is so taut in its execution, so steadfast in its identity, that it obliterates all memory of what came before.

Late Night Feelings is a revolution of Ronson’s sound; little here connects him to his previous record, Uptown Special, or his beloved 2007 breakthrough, Version. The album is a collection of what Ronson describes as “sad bangers”. These are pop songs about heartbreak and emotional wreckage, sung entirely by female vocalists ranging from the unknown (newcomer YEBBA) to the omnipresent (Miley Cyrus), and inspired by the break-up of Ronson’s own marriage.

Ronson says the fact that all the vocalists on Late Night Feelings are women is simply a consequence of what he finds interesting right now. “Maybe it’s just a phase, but the big male pop artists seem a bit fluffy to me,” he tells me during a recent trip to Melbourne.

The songs vary by genre – the record’s title track and the Angel Olsen collaboration “True Blue” skew disco, the YEBBA cut “Don’t Leave Me Lonely” and “Find U Again” with Camila Cabello are in line with modern pop, and the rest of the record traverses soul, country and R&B – but everything feels tied to a canon of pop music that finds exhilarating catharsis in the deepest of wounds. No longer content with writing emotionally bereft crowd-pleasers, Ronson has leant into writing emotionally for what he believes is the first time, spawning some of his most deeply resonant songs thus far.

Going into the studio, Ronson had every intention of writing songs akin to those on Uptown Special, only to find his heart wasn’t in it entirely. “I would try and do something more funky, and it would feel good at that moment in the studio,” he says. “And then I’d come back the next day and listen to it and it would just wash over me. It meant nothing.” It was a session with Swedish pop singer Lykke Li that yielded the concept of Late Night Feelings and eased Ronson into the idea of writing an album more in tune with his emotions.

“‘Late Night Feelings’ and the YEBBA tunes were some of the earlier things that we did, and [with that] it was like, ‘This means something to me,’ ” he says. “I think it wasn’t just the break-up of my marriage. That triggered dealing with childhood shit and just other stuff, just a lot of introspection being like, ‘Why have I lived my life out like this up to this point?’ And [I was] aware that the music was a little bit better because of it.”

“Late Night Feelings”, one of the two collaborations with Li on the record, is undoubtedly one of the year’s best, most potent crush songs. A lovelorn ode to doomed flirtations, it captures Li and Ronson at their respective peaks. While Li already proved herself to be one of pop music’s most adept writers of sad ballads on her 2014 record, I Never Learn, her turn on “Late Night Feelings” is something else. She sings:

 

Make me psychotic, you’ve pulled away

You take the sane in me and tear it like a page

Write you erotic, and I know your way

Before you answer just to make me go insane

 

The verse – ostensibly about an iMessage thread – hits you like a brick. You feel the ache and shiver of lying at home, waiting for a distant, uncaring crush to text you back. Ronson’s production on the song is lithe and funky without ever becoming frivolous, strings giving the track much-needed melodrama that stops the song becoming an out-and-out dance track.

In part, the appeal of Late Night Feelings is the breadth of emotion on display. After the drama of the title track comes the unashamedly lightweight “Find U Again”, featuring former Fifth Harmony member Camila Cabello and co-written by Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker. Glossy synths underpin frothy admissions – “This crush is kind of crushing me”. The song is no worse off because its core romantic tension isn’t particularly life or death. In fact, the relative jubilance, coupled with Cabello’s uniquely magnetic vocal melodies and the neon-lit Drive-soundtrack-lite production, proves not all lighthearted pop songs have to be backed by throwaway production in the style of, say, Taylor Swift’s recent hits.

One of the album’s most unlikely collaborations turns out to be one of its best. “True Blue”, featuring American indie rock musician Angel Olsen, is a marvel of glamorous, drugged-out disco. Olsen, singing in a lower register that she’s rarely touched since her early records, is the perfect foil for Ronson’s earthy, “Heart of Glass”-esque production. “Fucking around, I’m falling in love,” she sighs, sounding positively exhausted at the concept. She draws out the phrase “Love the way you read my eyes”, exhaling the words over a good eight seconds, and it sounds both romantic and forlorn, a kind of acknowledgment that rapture often ends in devastating heartbreak.

These songs are, on the whole, far more complex than just “sad bangers”. Across Late Night Feelings, there’s an understanding of heartbreak’s nihilistic thrill: nearly every song seems to relish, in some way, the feeling of burning it all, of crying your eyes red and drinking yourself sick. Much of 2019 in pop deals with crushing sadness. Unlike, say, Post Malone’s beerbongs & bentleys, though, Late Night Feelings never feels like a slog. These songs are propulsive and vibrant, rather than being dead behind the eyes.

To promote the album, Ronson has been touring a DJ set he’s calling “Club Heartbreak”, mixing tracks from Late Night Feelings with sad love songs from all eras. At his stop in Melbourne last Thursday, “True Blue” and “Don’t Leave Me Lonely” felt natural among iconic anthems such as Britney Spears’ “Toxic”, Dolly Parton’s “Jolene”, and Justin Timberlake’s “Cry Me a River”. It’s testament to the craft of Late Night Feelings that Ronson’s own songs seemed as familiar and worn-in as the classics. This album probably won’t yield a hit as big as “Uptown Funk”, but with its indelible and idiosyncratic depictions of love and sadness, it is sure to resonate for far longer than 14 weeks.

 

Arts Diary

THEATRE Lord of the Flies

Roslyn Packer Theatre, Sydney, July 23—August 24

VISUAL ART Kyle Hughes-Odgers: Between the Earth and the Moon

Turner Galleries, Perth, until August 10

THEATRE Ghosts

The Curators Vintage Pop-Up Theatre, Brisbane, until August 4

CIRCUS Circus Rio

Wigley Reserve, Glenelg, until July 27

THEATRE Make Me a Houri

La Mama Courthouse , Melbourne, July 25–August 4

CULTURE Disrupted Festival of Ideas

State Library of Western Australia, Perth, July 27-28

CIRCUS Circus OZ Rock Bang

Princess Theatre, Launceston, July 20

Theatre Royal, Hobart, July 25-27

MULTIMEDIA Earth

Space 2b, Melbourne, until August 31

EXHIBITION Dead Central

State Library of New South Wales, Sydney, until November 17

VISUAL ART Hadley’s Art Prize

Hadley’s Orient Hotel, Hobart, until August 18

MUSICAL Muriel’s Wedding

Sydney Lyric Theatre, until September 8

Last chance

MULTIMEDIA Here Is Your Horizon

Cement Fondu, Sydney, until July 21

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 20, 2019 as "Pop heart". Subscribe here.

Shaad D’Souza
is a Melbourne-based music critic and former Australian editor of Noisey.