Silk Sonic Are Here to Save Us With Seventies Soul

Silk Sonic is Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak’s lavish love letter to Seventies soul music, particularly post-What’s Going On Motown and the sumptuous, string-bathed Philadelphia sound of greats like the Stylistics, the Delfonics, and Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes. They created A Night With Silk Sonic during Covid quarantine, as chronicled in their recent Rolling Stone cover story, giving the famously obsessive Mars all the time in the world to fixate on getting every period detail perfect. The pair hunted down old drum magazines to make sure they were using the right snare and conga heads, cut some of the record in Memphis’ Royal Studios, where Al Green made his classic albums, and even brought in forebears like Larry Gold, of the legendary Philly International house band MFSB, to arrange and conduct strings, and P-Funk icon Bootsy Collins, who appears throughout the album, as a special guest host and spiritual advisor. The result is the most enjoyable record Mars has been a part of — a glorious excuse to turn out the lights, break out the bubbly and let the sublime power of their almost troublingly uncanny retro verisimilitude work its mimetic magic on your soul and mind. 

The resplendently stretched-out grooves of the hit “Leave the Door Open” or the equally fine “After Last Night” are so historically accurate you almost expect to hear Teddy Pendergrass himself come in when the verse starts. “Put On a Smile” is so close to the vibe of Marvin Gaye’s Let’s Get It On that you start humming “Distant Lover” when it comes on. There’s Thom Bell sitar, Ernie Isley guitar, melodies hoisted aloft on cushiony beds of glockenspiel, congas, violas, violins, and cellos. But while cosplaying the classics is a huge part of the appeal here, Bruno and Andy also bring a lovingly winking post-hip-hop playfulness that keeps this from merely being a high-end museum tour. On “Leave the Door Open,” they promise a night of “Purple Haze, and if you’re hungry, I got filets” — not a sentiment you’d hear quite so frankly on the radio in 1974 — and the stressed-out boyfriend in the deceptively airy “Smokin Out the Window” complains about his new girl’s “badass kids runnin’ ’round my whole crib like it’s Chuck E. Cheese” and “a jam with her ex-man in the UFC.”

Mars’ perfectionist bent has given even his most beloved hits, like “Uptown Funk,” a mathematical precision that can sometimes feel a touch too manicured and fine-tuned. But the more frenetically energetic .Paak, who drums and shares copacetic duo vocals, brings a looser, free associating counterpoint, particularly on James Brownian workouts like “Fly As Me” and “777,” grittier songs driven by his Ultimate Breaks & Beats-worthy stick work. It also helps that some of the songs here are literally as straight-up good as the holy grail source material Silk Sonic are shooting for. The best song on the record is “Skate,” opening like it’s going to be a high-drama anthem of stormy betrayal until it glides into a sunburst of roller-disco elation with a melody that could’ve owned any summer during the Ford administration. 

Mars and .Paak have noted that they chose not to include a “heavier” track they’d recorded for the album, suggesting that the good time is a kind of reward in times of struggle. There’s something period-perfect about that, too. Philly Soul could definitely be political (see the Blue Notes’ “Wake Up Everybody,” or the Philadelphia International All-Stars’ even more pointed “Clean Up the Ghetto,” just to take two examples). But its plush grooves, smooth romantic entreaties, and dapper style were a balm amidst hardship in its time as well, offering people a place to comedown and relax after the frenzy of the late-Sixties and the burnout of the early-Seventies. In that sense, A Night With Silk Sonic hits a welcome note in late 2021, just as people are starting to feel okay about going back out trying to have some normal fun again. It’s a post-pandemic record — maybe a little early, hopefully right on time.