Gnarls Barkley are a musical tandem uniquely suited for each other – both men are as enigmatic as they are fascinating. Whether singing or rapping, Thomas DeCarlo Callaway b/k/a Cee-Lo lays his entire life on the line lyrically. Few artists have ever been such an open book when it comes to discussing religion, sexuality, politics and everything from self-loathing to exuberant joy. Brian Joseph Burton b/k/a Danger Mouse puts the E in eclectic like few producers have before him or since. A broad range of artists have called on Mr. Mouse for his beats, ranging from cult hip-hop favorites MF DOOM and Jemini the Gifted One to chart-topping sensations Gorillaz and The Rapture. His sound is a square peg that doesn’t fit neatly into the round holes of any one genre. It would be far too easy to say his rap sounds like eletronica, his pop sounds like rock or his rock sounds like rap. For Burton such distinctions are entirely malleable – he can freeform shape music into anything that strikes his fancy. Pairing the two together on “St. Elsewhere” resulted in an unexpected and exciting musical menagerie that seemed destined to spark strong debate. This writer picked it as one of 2006’s ten best while staff writer DJ Complejo only gave it 6.5 out of 10 overall.
Like many writers and fans I incorrectly assumed this was a one time flight of fancy for two creative cats looking to collaborate and cross boundaries. Discovering Gnarls Barkley had returned for “The Odd Couple” caused me such excitement I immediately plunked down $9.99 for the album on iTunes. This was not the kind of CD I could wait to get a promo copy of in the mail or wait until I could afford the gas for a trip to the record store. NOW. I needed this album NOW. There are very few artists who can make me that excited, so in essence Gnarls Barkley had already won even before this review began. Before going any further though it’s worth stating for the record that the rapper Cee-Lo you may have recognized from the Goodie Mob days has now basically ceased to exist, and some of his old school hip-hop fans may be holding that against him. Frankly that’s a terrible mistake and I implore, no I BESEECH those of you reading who feel that way to reconsider. Cee-Lo is still a lyricist whether he’s singing or rapping. The clicking claves, guitar licks and upbeat 1960’s pop tempo of “Surprise” may fool you into thinking the song is happy-go-lucky, but Callaway is as serious as cancer on the track:
“Now the ending to ev-e-ry story is most enchanting
Now, whether it’s heaven or hell
I wear it well; please forgive me for rambling
I just wanted y’all
To know that I don’t know it all
So when that big ol’ smile ends up, bein just a disguise
Don’t be surprised!”
False perceptions are a perpetual source of angst for Cee-Lo. He constantly feels misunderstood, misjudged and mistreated by the world around him. To some degree he’s entitled – I still remember being asked in college who “the fat ugly black dude” was in the Goodie Mob poster on my door. Callaway may not be the classical figure to walk the runway, but if reality TV embraced a show called “America’s Most Fashionable Pimp” he and Andre 3000 would have to be the first two picks. His singing voice also resists conventional definitions. Not everyone is immediately left awestruck by his raspy and earnestly sincere delivery. Said critics would probably not be enthusiastic about gospel music and probably aren’t too keen on Al Green either. There’s an irresistable quality to Cee-Lo’s soaring voice that can only be quantified as SOUL. “Blind Mary” knows that soul well – she doesn’t have to see him to feel him.
“She’s my friend, she doesn’t judge me
She has no idea I’m ugly
So I’ve absolutely nothing to hide
Because I’m so much prettier inside
Yeahhhhhhhh! I love Mary (I love Mary)
Blind Mary, marry me”
The cynical among you are saying that such sappy sentimentalism is ill-suited for the era we live in. Gnarls Barkley is not afraid to embrace a unique perspective by purposefully putting on rose colored glasses to view the world. That doesn’t mean that this “Odd Couple” walk happily through a land of bliss; in fact sometimes the tint merely enhances and draws out the darkness of life. “Run (I’m a Natural Disaster)” is a frantic and manic musical attack of panic as Mouse chases rapper and rapper runs in fear of the Mouse:
“Yeah it’s still the same, can’t you feel the pain?
When the needle hits the vein, ain’t nothing like the real thang
I’ve seen it once before and oh it’s something else, good God!
Cool breeze come on in, sunshine come on down
These are the teardrops of a clown, the circus is comin to town
All I’m sayin is sometimes I’m more scared of myself
You better (MOVE!) I said (MOVE!) Ha yeah
(AHH!) Run away (AHH!) Run away
(AHH!) Run children (AHH!) Run for your life
Either you run right now or you best get ready to die!”
Tormented as he is by the world it’s not surprising Cee-Lo takes joy wherever he can find it. Still he finds the need to call on Danger Mouse to make a confession to his “Neighbors” – even behind these tints things just aren’t as rosey as they seem. Behold his Curtis Mayfield-esque confession:
“Now my neighbor likes my clothes
But hadn’t seen me with my scars exposed
My neighbor!! My neighbor!!
Myyyyy neighbor, ohhh dissatisfied
My neighbor’s, behavior… is unjustified
I’m sick and tired
I don’t know if he lives all alone
but if you’re scared of the darkness
best leave the lights on
I had a talk with my neighbor
Say it simple and plain
I guess he understood me
He never came back again”
The most twisted thing about Gnarls Barkley is that just when you’ve got their sound figured out they turn over a new leaf that ends up being a whole new forest full of trees. Just within the four songs we’ve already covered thus far Cee-Lo and Danger Mouse have run the gamut of musical styles like pop, rock, soul and even the blues. Just when you think those blues are going to get Cee-Lo down for good he turns it around on the album’s finale and says “I feel better, I can laugh at it now I feel better! Ohh better, and even a little is still better.” Say word. I feel better listening to “The Odd Couple,” thirteen songs chock full of honest, unabashed, experimental self-expression that isn’t afraid to take chances. “Oh can’t you see? If I help somebody, baby that’s mercy for me” croons Cee-Lo on “Charity Case,” and when downloaders and CD buyers are done he’ll have a plethora of mercy on his hands. When Mouse and man pose the question “Who’s Gonna Save My Soul” the irony is that they are not only their own salvation but that of their listeners too. Even if you don’t like “The Odd Couple” the first time it will only get better with every listen. Whether you’re a critic or a fan it just doesn’t get any better than that.