Bruno Mars reigned the charts during the 2010s with a prolific run of R&B love songs. He remains one of the most popular artists alive and has a distinctive sound with long lines and complex vocals over retro backing. Anderson. Paak, meanwhile, is a funk musician and rapper who broke into the scene with his signature blend of complex instrumentation, raw vocals, and rhythmic prowess. Given their differences, the success of their resulting album, An Evening with Silk Sonic, is surprising. EWSS is a refreshing ode to golden-age records with good vibes injected into each performance and track. Although short and slightly unfinished, the production and songwriting quality sets this album apart as an immense and rejuvenating collaboration that will be a favorite for years.
Writing: (7.5/10) Good. The writing would be excellent if it weren’t for mediocre tracks such as “777” and “Blast Off.” Although none of the tracks do anything particularly inventive, they authentically and accurately capture the subject genre.
Production (8/10) Great. I will not lie, I am biased to spacious and lush production and this album brings some of the best of this year to the table. Objectively, as well, the mixing and subtle distortion are used to great effect except in a few instances.
Structure (7/10) This album starts strong with the feeling of a live set in a smoky 70s dance hall but it loses this quality in some of the central tracks. Thanks to an ethereal outro in “Blast Off” this structure is preserved but it could have benefited from some longer takes or a few quasi-interlude tracks.
What I think: When two of your favorite artists collaborate it can be dreadful or heavenly and this one will bless my playlists forever. Paak and Mars soar on this record and even the songs that aren’t as good are fun to listen to.
Before Silk Sonic, Bruno Mars and Anderson. Paak seemed like an incompatible duo. Mars reigned the charts during the 2010s with a prolific run of R&B love songs. He remains one of the most popular artists alive and has a distinctive sound with long lines and complex vocals over retro backing. Paak, meanwhile, is a funk musician and rapper who broke into the scene with his signature blend of complex instrumentation, raw vocals, and rhythmic prowess. Given their differences, would their combined styles work? When Mars and Paak released their first collaborative single under the group name “Silk Sonic,” the clear answer was yes. This single, “Leave the Door Open” turned the clocks back to the era of live production and instruments seen in the funk and R&B of Motown. The sheer level of production, vocals, writing, and structure of this song was such a success that it caused this single to break number 1 on the charts (although mostly eclipsed by Lil Nas X’s “MONTERO”). After two more singles, “Skate” and “Smokin out the Window,” the album, An Evening With Silk Sonic finally dropped on November 12.
As a general point, EWSS is too short. Although this is not necessarily a flaw, its nine tracks only span 31 minutes and leave the listener hungry for more. You could interpret this as a further ode to the album’s muse, the golden age of R&B, where short albums were the norm, but most likely the length of this project is a result of artistic bankruptcy or the limitation of Silk Sonic’s palette of sound.
Much like a live set, the “Silk Sonic Intro” introduces the band and the announcer, the immense Bootsy Collins. The aforementioned “Leave the Door Open” follows in a similar fashion, transporting the listener to an intimate dance hall with warm lighting. As a setting of tone, then, these two tracks more than adequately get the album going.
An immediately infectious bassline opens the next track, “Fly As Me.” Paak uses his characteristic sense of rhythm to sell the humorous lyrics of the verses, while Mars provides backing vocals in the pre-chorus and chorus. The tone throughout is mostly humorous, with Mars’ signature narcissisms. The best part of this song, however, is the filthily rhythmic breakdown/bridge that helps the song from becoming repetitive. The only flaw in this song is that the vocals in the chorus are slightly off-putting. It’s unclear why, but something in the mixing or pitch is slightly off and prevents the chorus from land.
What better way to hit a home run than to bring Thundercat onto a classic R&B track? Although just a bass line, Thundercat adds the extra spice to “After Last Night.” This song blends perfectly with the album’s colors and allows Mars’ vocals to soar, especially in the upward key change on the back end. Bootsy Collins’ interspersed spoken lines add a live element to the track as well, made even more palpable by the production’s spacing. There are some slightly annoying parts in this song, for example, the brief use of a more raw guitar mostly works, but the split second where it is just this guitar at the 3:48 mark doesn’t quite blend. In summary, you have to be really picky to find issues with this track because it’s just so good.
The next track is the last single released, “Smokin out the Window.” Although we originally gave this track a mediocre review, citing its loose-feeling structure, it become better after multiple listens. Once again, the vocals and instrumentation are nearly perfect on this track and there are some moments of sheer brilliance (especially the “this bitch got me…” Bruno line). The string lines are similarly brilliant, keeping the sound firmly rooted with the rest of the album. Altogether, this song is catchy and well-executed, even if it seems a tiny bit disjunct.
Continuing the theme of heartbreak from the previous song, “Put On A Smile” channels similar songs in Mars’ discography, “When I Was Your Man” for example. Although it doesn’t hit as hard as the previous tracks, some parts of the song are very well done. For example, the chorus outro is extremely effective after the grandiose chorus. As a way of resolution, the second chorus outro continues the energy of the chorus into the track’s end. Some solid songwriting and performances but, overall, nothing exceptional on this one.
What to say about “777?” This song is easily the worst on the album and doesn’t even fit with the spacious production of the previous tracks. The lyrics sound like an outtake from Bruno’s XIV Magic and the backing guitar is overdriven and muted after the Beatles’ “Back in the USSR.” The combination of these with some erratic vocals makes this song too frenetic for the album. At this point, one has to wonder if this track is a symptom of Silk Sonic ineffectively pushing against the limitations of their chosen genre.
The final single from this album, “Skate” uses strings and roller-skating to great effect in a fun dance track. This song is catchy and light, fits with the tone of the album (especially in its instrumental interludes), and the vocals on lines like “oh no no don’t be shy” are extremely effective. The bridge is nothing special and slows the song’s momentum down, especially with yet another interlude after it. Altogether, however, this song is quite good.
And just like that this album is done, finishing off with the track “Blast Off.” Invoking more psychedelic inspiration, this song begins with an ethereal quality, quite unlike other tracks. This change in tone almost works but is impeded by the use of vocal timbre more suited to the previous sounds on “Leave the Door Open” or “Smokin out the Window.” Even after listening to this track a dozen times in the context of the album, it’s still unclear if the outro on this track is brilliant or completely ineffective. As a kind of live-style recession, it has a sufficiently late-evening quality to it that leaves the listener with a sense of completion. At the same time, if you skip back to the earlier tracks on the song, this section makes very little sense. Regardless, this entire track feels a little unpolished and underproduced. Almost certainly, the recording of this track occurred last and quite close to the release deadline.
This album works quite well as an ode to the works of early R&B and golden-age soul, with the addition of more modern subject material and instrumentation. There are several inconsistent moments in the track-list and some of the later songs are not good enough. For how high the expectations were for this project, however, this album more than meets them, providing fodder for Bruno Mars fans until he deigns us with more projects. The sound palette is mostly immaculate and lush, with astounding vocals and styled songwriting, and the feeling of attending a live set never quite leaves the listener. In summary, An Evening With Silk Sonic is a refreshing ode to golden-age records with good vibes injected into each performance and track. Although short and slightly unfinished, the production and songwriting quality sets this album apart as an immense and rejuvenating collaboration that will be a favorite for years.