Gnarls Barkley: Of Mice and Men
The Bell Jar, as interpreted by Dr. Seuss. It wasn't immediately evident what Gnarls Barkley were driving at, and you'd be forgiven for not wanting to stick around long enough to find out. They were aggravatingly ubiquitous back in 2006, when it seemed like "Crazy" was the only song anyone knew. You couldn't fault the initial attraction: It's a luscious bit of pure-pop pathos, producer Danger Mouse explicitly stealing a piece of operatic spaghetti-Western grandeur rather than just trying to approximate it, and Cee-Lo moaning bombastically over top in that helium croon, both nasal and guttural, both profoundly goofy and deeply melodramatic. A bit of Fat Albert, a bit of Tony Soprano.
Of course, that's 90 percent of the problem here: arbitrary pop-culture references in lieu of actual personality, actual insight. This all started as a lark, just one of Danger Mouse's 10,000 irreverent collaborations in the wake of The Grey Album's raucous success. (Remember "Dangerhorse"?) Gnarls Barkley from the onset were almost unbearably wacky, all those film-parody press photos (Napoleon Dynamite, The Big Lebowski, A Clockwork Orange) and corny onstage high jinks (at their May '06 NYC debut at Webster Hall, they dressed as glam-metalers and bounded onstage to the strains of "The Final Countdown," our generation's most insincerely beloved power-ballad.) You got the distinct sense you were being fucked with. And then "Crazy" went absolutely massive, covered by every sentient musician on the planet, praised to the skies and played into the ground. We're talking "Hey Ya!" levels of overexposure.
So, yes. Understandable you'd tune these guys out and dismiss that year's St. Elsewhere as merely a vessel for "Crazy" and a bunch of other just-as-absurd but not-as-catchy bullshit. You're not wrong about that. But now comes The Odd Couple, a hastily crafted follow-up, a subpar sequel, much more Rocky V than The Godfather: Part II. It's easy but unfair to chalk that up to Gnarls' failure to offer up anything on par with "Crazy"—a fluke hit of that magnitude can't be duplicated. No, what's missing this time out is anything as harrowing as another Elsewhere track: "Just a Thought." You know, the one where Cee-Lo talks about killing himself.
What made "Crazy" resonate was that the guy really did sound a little insane; beneath his partner's candy-coated Scooby-Doo exteriors, that immaculate but vacuous Looney Tunes noir shtick, the former Goodie Mob rapper flung off all traces of his Southern rap bravado and unloaded on us, like all our hard drives were merely a psychiatrist's couch for him to lounge and moan upon. Elsewhere can be deeply, disconcertingly dark, and "Just a Thought" is the rock-bottom, Cee-Lo's voice naked and shivering over a harsh drum loop and some mournful acoustic guitar. He is once again describing his fragile psychosis, but with no triumphant hook this time. "It's not good, it's GREAT depression," he cracks, but this ain't no joke. Chorus:
And I've tried
Everything but suicide
But it's crossed my mind
For those who could tolerate the outfits, the pageantry, the media saturation, this was the payoff, the bleeding, beating heart beneath all that flash and trash. But Odd Couple can't replicate either the pop-star high or the emotional-wreck low. It attacks both ends: Danger Mouse's beats are pristine, inventive delights, fusing girl-group insouciance to surly surf guitars to yet more mythic, choral-moaning Ennio Morricone splendor, while Cee-Lo's self-loathing is as vicious as ever. "Even my shadow leaves me all alone at night," he laments on the opener, "Charity Case"; DM responds by dropping in a burst of girly, carefree French-pop cooing—La la la la, la la la la. "Blind Mary" is a loping, farting-tuba polka shuffle wherein Cee-Lo serenades the only woman who could ever love him: someone who'll never know how ugly he is. And "Run (I'm a Natural Disaster)," the closest thing here to a possible zeitgeist-seizing hit, has an infectiously frantic energy, as our MC desperately tries to save us from his self-destructive tendencies while his producer conjures a gleeful crowd of children to shout along: (Yay!) "Run away!" (Yay!) "Run away!" (Yay!) "Run children!" (Yay!) "Run for your life!"
It's a trip when they get it right, that balance between childlike joy and man-child pathos. Cee-Lo's voice is a bewildering, elastic instrument—he works up a fabulously bitchy Gossip Girl sneer on the adolescent rant "Whatever." The aesthetic that Gnarls Barkley are going for is basically Green Day's "Basket Case" video: cartoonishly saturated colors and rampant mental-hospital shenanigans. But for all Danger Mouse's headphone earworms—a silky sitar on "Would Be Killer," the crisply snapping snare/hand-clap beat of "Going On"—too much of Odd Couple feels either oddly inert or over-the-top goopy. "Come on! Take me! Come on! Read me!" Cee-Lo howls on "Open Book," discarding the matter-of-fact calm that made "Just a Thought" so chilling. "Who's Gonna Save My Soul" is similarly overcooked, a simmering soul ballad coughing up large, unwieldy chunks of partially chewed scenery. "A Little Better" finishes us off with Cee-Lo's most ham-handed bout of hand-wringing yet: "It's probably plain to see/That I got a lot of pain in me/And it will always remain in me." Climactically, he offers up something even more explicit: "I wanna thank you Mom and Dad/For hurting me so bad/But you're the best I ever had." Fade out. Record over. How are we supposed to react to that? The best what?
Gnarls Barkley's clash of audio-visual camp and tortured taxicab confessions can be exhilarating when mixed properly, but near-fatal when the proportions aren't right—a truly disquieting mix of the overly sincere and the entirely insincere. If it hits you wrong, it'll evoke those terrible parody flicks that arise to insult us every half-year or so: Date Movie, Scary Movie, Superhero Movie, etc. So this is Goofy, Tortured Album. It sounds great but feels all wrong; you can't get over how hokey all the costumes are, even if the blood is alarmingly real.
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