Mark Ronson Assembles an All-Female Lineup of Singers to Capture ‘Late Night Feelings’
It’s not all that common for a producer behind-the-scenes of hit singles to get publicly acknowledged, save celebrated. Popular music is a world of flash and bombast, in which the loudest voices drown out all other sound. In this environment, producer and songwriter Mark Ronson is an outlier, having managed to release albums under his own name, recruiting star power to carry his tunes. If anyone could make this work, it would be Ronson, considering his absolutely staggering resume. He has worked with everyone from Amy Winehouse to Lady Gaga. Many know him primarily for the epic hit that was 2014’s “Uptown Funk,” with Bruno Mars. For his latest album, “Late Night Feelings,” Ronson features only female singers, selecting a variety of expressive voices, each of which bring out different aspects of his dynamic songwriting, and showcase his production savvy. It’s a record with a very distinctive feel — dim-lit, soulful, and effortlessly blending sounds seemingly culled from both the past and the future.
The album begins with a synth whirlwind that morphs into cinematic strings, and opens into a lush soundscape with a loungy arrangement that evokes ‘70s decadence. Lykke Li sings a few lines with a whimsical jazzy looseness, and it’s all immediately very camp and frivolous. It’s just what you might expect from a track titled “Late Night Prelude,” and it effectively sets the mood for the record that takes off. There’s a seamless segue into the title track, on which Li takes the spotlight, and her sultry voice matched to Ronson’s fanciful studio touches makes for an instant infectious mess.. The catchy chorus centers around a melodic snippet that’s made its way into innumerable songs over the decades, but dresses it up in its own way. It’s difficult to imagine the song working as well with any other singer than Li, as if it were written specifically for her voice.
Camila Cabello takes the mic for “Find U Again.” Compared to Li’s wispy, restrained utterances, Cabello sings with a dramatic force that makes the music take on a whole new color. Ronson sounds to be having plenty of fun toying with ‘80s sounds, and dropping gritty growling bass lines at just the right moments to send the song into the stratosphere. The upbeat pop yields to expansive ruminations and then back to beat again on “Pieces Of Us,” featuring King Princess, another expressive voice, the most traditionally “soulful” yet in her stylings. Ronson takes the ‘80s inclinations he’s been teasing throughout all the way on this track, putting down a rhythm track that screams of boom boxes and tracksuits.
An especially exciting moment comes on “Knock Knock,”for which YEBBA takes on vocal duties, and brings a return to the free-flowing jazzy instincts of the opening track, trading the more concrete subject matter of the last few numbers for free, unstructured expression. The whole song little more than one line, “You come knock, knock, knocking on my door,” along with gliding “Ooh, ahhs,” placed over bending notes, and makes a fine example of less being more, with the open-endedness capturing a certain elusive spirit of heart. With this introduction, YEBBA goes on to full singing duties on “Don’t Leave Me Lonely,” and makes a stunning display, escalating from hushed coolness to soaring, gleeful, elaborate cascades, and outshining all the other singers yet, in terms of personality and flair. On “When You Went Away,” she gets a bit weird, morphing up her vowels in a way that sounds, at moments, like she’s gargling, possessed, or just having a little too much fun at art school.
Alicia Keys makes an appearance on “Truth,” along with Portland rapper and singer The Last Artful, Dodgr, whose quirky phrasing picks up just where YEBBA left off, and channels it elegantly into new sonic territory. The classic hip-hop instrumentation and playful chorus recall some of Mos Def’s collaborative work, and the chemistry between Keys and Dodgr is as natural as could be. Miley Cyrus might be the most anticipated feature on the album, fresh from her latest sizzling reinvention, “She Is Coming.” Her contribution here, “Nothing Breaks Like a Heart,” finds her in relatively more restrained form, but putting on a flawless performance. The track continues the lush, swinging sounds running through the album, but recasts them, with the slight trace of country in Cyrus’ voice putting a whole new spin on the sound. Sweeping strings and some deliciously skewered drumming, combined with Cyrus’ soaring vocals makes the track a sure standout.
Out of the blue comes Angel Olson, singing with a dour, deadpan delivery worlds away from the soulful spirit shown on every other song, before erupting into an absolutely epic, beaming chorus, full of eighties gloss, and a slight indie obliqueness absent elsewhere on the record. After this detour, “Why Hide,” featuring Beyoncé co-writer and singer Diana Gordon, comes as a return to form. It’s back to dim-lit grooves and R&B shapes. Gordon sings with a delicacy and fluency of rhythmic impulse, and Ronson envelops her voice in an arrangement that looks back to the more organic instrumentation of ‘70s and early ‘80s soul. After all the flights and flurries of the album’s stylistic maneuvers, Lykki Li returns to wind things down on “2AM,” a mellow number that tones down the filigree and album as a allows Li’s voice to take center stage, highlighting its distinctive sweetness that makes all the difference. Finally, Ilsey rounds things off, sounding a bit like Li, but with a flavor of her own, and cloaked in Laurie Anderson-style processing and an open, ethereal soundscape that pans elegantly out.
All in all, “Late Night Feelings” stands out for how remarkably cohesive it sounds, even though it explores so many styles. Ronson has a knack for picking singers who extend his musical ideas in an uncanny way. Although he has described the album as a collection of “sad bangers,” it doesn’t come across as altogether sad, as much as perhaps melancholy. The cover art, depicting a broken heart-shaped disco ball conveys the overall feeling just right. Feelings lifted from romantic struggles are channeled into bright and decadent songs that survey different emotions, and consistently resonate successfully. It’s unclear whether the record will produce a hit rivaling the success of “Uptown Funk,” but it has plenty of merit as a realized, nuanced full work to shine on its own.
“Late Night Feelings“ is available June 21 on Apple Music.