Over the summer of 2006, Gnarls Barkley was on the top of their game, which sounds funny given the name of the band. Puns aside, the band was reeling in the world wide success of their chart topping single, “Crazy”, indulging themselves in several music festivals, and even landing an opening spot on tour with the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Their debut, St. Elsewhere, would go on to be certified Platinum and win the group, Best Alternative Music Album at the 2007 Grammy Awards. If that’s not a gorgeous score card, then the music scene is even harder than it presents itself. That’s why it hurts so much when I hear people today say, “Whoa, they really fell off the map.”
All that is about to change with the release of their sophomoric effort, The Odd Couple. Just by judging from the new single, “Run”, it’s clear that they’re not going to write another “Crazy.” Why should they? It’s global success opened the door to something more, which is precisely what any group should want. Thus we have the introspective, alternative follow up to the less eclectic, testing the waters debut, St. Elsewhere.
That’s not to say everything has changed. This is still the soulful, Motown loving group that put real R&B back on the map, only now it’s a little more assured and convinced. Picking up where St. Elsewhere left off, that familiar projector starts up again with “Charity Case”, where a bossa nova drum beat accelerates into “caveman” harmonics. Frontman and vocalist Cee-Lo sweeps in to announce, “I don’t know what matters to you at this moment, but that’s all that matters to me.” It’s poppy, but without the lights and the glamor.
“I got some bad news this morning/which in turn made my day,” Cee-Lo jumps right into the drama in “Who’s Gonna Save My Soul.” Someone must have sent him props for last album’s bluesy ballad, “St. Elsewhere”, because this vocal style runs rampant throughout The Odd Couple. In “Soul”, when Cee-Lo asks, “How will my story be told?”, you’re left scratching your head wondering too. It’s simple, to the point, but inordinately strong. The churchly chorus that chimes in alongside the poignant instrumentation is heart wrenching.
Things heat up though. This is a group that refuses to dust away any pride in creating fast, catchy, and moving beats, thanks to the work of producer Danger Mouse. In “Going On”, the guitar takes lead, trading off measures with some sustained organ, which allows Cee-Lo to skim right through effortlessly and without pause. It’s quick and has a sharp bite. “Run”, the first single off this release, is something to dance to, if not a quick fix for listeners cashing in on the band’s late success.
What’s important to recognize or at least serve some attention to is Cee-Lo’s downward spiral lyrically, not in quality but emotionally. It’s ironic that he states earlier in “Going On”, “I’m going on/ to a place in the sun that’s nice and warm”, considering the following songs are anything but that. These deal with isolation and a yearning for lost love. Much different from the band that brought you “Smiley Faces.” It’s now clear that this happy, outgoing front man is clearly thwarting inner demons.
“Open Book” brings us to a forest, maybe a jungle, with nature sounds and a tribal beat. It’s not as disturbing as the lyrics tend to be with Cee-Lo confessing, “I wish I was a better liar.” He’s not convincing us otherwise in the misleading 60’s doo-wop romp, when he’s shouting, “Everyone agrees I could use some help.” What’s happened to this man? While St. Elsewhere dealt with some larger than life, darker issues, they tended to be more supernatural and far fetched. In The Odd Couple, Cee-Lo is up front, honest, and stripped of the signature cult classic get up he might be wearing any given day.
As the album progresses, the beats tend to pick up some and the momentum is a bit elevated, but it’s still the same down on himself vocalist. Self deprecation and angst filters in and out of the slick yet fast paced, “Surprise.” Who ever thought the theme song to Hawaii 5-O could be so depressing? One of the album’s stronger songs, “Blind Mary”, jumps around on a bass line that would make Marvin Gaye smile. Cee-Lo seems positive, declaring his love for presumably a blind woman. Such a song carries out like a twisted romantic comedy, where he continues spouting off lines like, “She has no idea I’m ugly.”
By the end, there is hope for the typically care free, jubilant frontman. In the album’s closer, “A Little Better”, Cee-Lo summarizes the themes and aspects of his life, including dealing with the idea of success (Even he’s surprised at where the one time side project has taken him). When he shouts, “I refuse to die in pain”, one should sigh in relief.
Lyrically, The Odd Couple is a long, arduous piece of work and a genuinely right sense of direction on behalf of the principal songwriter, Cee-Lo. Musically, this should be a delight to anyone that bought St. Elsewhere for it’s ingenuity, rather than the stellar hit single. As a whole, The Odd Couple is arguably one of the better sophomoric efforts in recent memory. I’m looking forward to the third entry already.
“Who’s Gonna Save My Soul”