“I found joy through all my pain / I just wanna be happy with being me,” sang Cee-Lo on Common’s 1997 album One Day It’ll All Make Sense. At the time he was examining his relationships with religion and blackness on a song called “G.O.D. (Gaining One’s Definition)”, but the Cee-Lo that’s grown into the public spotlight over these past six post-“Crazy” years seems to have taken that particular line as a mantra he keeps close to his heart at all times. Especially since accepting a judge’s role on FOX vocal talent show The Voice and eschewing the paranoid Gnarls Barkley persona for a boisterous retro figure some have likened to Elton John or George Clinton (most notably SNL’s Kenan Thompson), Cee-Lo has become a glamorous, flamboyant male id who can follow up hits “Fuck You” and “Cry Baby” with a Christmas album without surprising anyone. But Cee-Lo’s confidence as a vocalist shouldn’t be confused as talent in all cases; the slow burn soul searching of Goodie Mob and the Dungeon Family/Neo-Soul movement was a perfect couch for his style, especially when paired with his then-amazing ability to pick your brain apart through regular old rapping.
The Gnarls Barkley project was essentially that personality filtered through a vent of absurdism, and that too played to Green’s strengths as a communicator of frayed emotions. But in his latter days, Green’s attempted to portray a singer who’s not just awesomely adept at crafting genuine articles out of novelty, but a force to be a reckoned with. And he just isn’t. Part of Cee-Lo’s Magic Moment‘s struggles no doubt come from the deeply rooted family trees of most of the songs he selects here—it’s just not fair to put his “This Christmas” in the same conversation as Donny Hathaway’s or Patti LaBelle’s (let alone my personal favorite, the Dismemberment Plan’s) or “All I Want for Christmas Is You” against the Mariah Carey original.
The choice of guests here is also stale at best, confusing at worst. Christina Aguilera, herself a Christmas veteran, appears early on the duet “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” and initially impresses, but about halfway through the song both artists’ vocals devolve into diva histrionics that serve nothing to the song. “All I Need Is Love”, Cee-Lo’s one original, has some laughable lyrics about 60-inch TVs, really poor instrumentation that brings to mind an amateur “Mambo No. 5” and a number of Muppets shouting lyrics for no apparent reason. You’d be forgiven for not knowing who the next guests, Straight No Chaser are (I assumed some sort of Cobra Starship spinoff): YouTube superstars in 2006 thanks to an unearthing of their acapella rendition of “12 Days of Christmas”, they appear on Dr. Seuss’s “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” to provide the cartoon’s signature whimsy. Unfortunately, whatever fun you might have expected Cee-Lo to have with the song is quickly replaced by dread as he hams it up through the spoken word sections and reminds you why we so rarely listen to that song out of context in the first place.
Listening to Cee-Lo’s Magic Moment feels a lot like wandering into a dark night club, buying a few overprice drinks and watching an aspiring Vegas act fumble through his sterile interpretations of the past. Just take a look at “Run, Rudolph, Run”, which features B.o.B. and feels like a bar band channeling Little Richard for a country club. But even those acts get things right every once in a while, and Cee-Lo’s “What Christmas Means to Me” opens the album professionally if nothing else while “Please Come Home for Christmas” pulls the album out of those mid-section doldrums with a sedate performance that would probably test well with the American Idol crowd. And there’s also the curve ball of Joni Mitchell’s “River”, not only for being a non-standard (at least to my knowledge—trusty Wikipedia says otherwise) of the season but for its subtle Canadian sentimentalism.
Christmas music is an unstoppable capital force in the consumer-based American interpretation of the holiday, a genre that creeps ever further into the autumnal months with each passing year it seems. For folks who love Cee-Lo as a television personality and/or demand new renditions of songs we’ve all heard thousands of times over, Cee-Lo’s Magic Moment exists. For everyone else…well, there’s probably copies of Cee-Lo Green…Is the Soul Machine lying around somewhere out there.