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Gnarls Barkley

The Odd Couple

(Downtown; US: 21 Mar 2008; UK: 31 Mar 2008; Internet release date: 18 Mar 2008)

“Let’s begin at the end / Because the questions are the answers, my friend”.


This is not a line off The Odd Couple, but my own (rather ersatz) approach to employ “Gnarls Barkley speak” towards discussing the latest offering from Danger Mouse and Cee-Lo. Since the logic of Gnarls Barkley’s lyrics is often framed in contradictory terms, why not begin discussing The Odd Couple with the last song. “What would be on your mind if you knew you was dyin’?”, Cee-Lo posits on “A Little Better”.  The listener is left to answer: Regret? Pain? Relief? Joy? Funny how by simply removing the punctuation, those words cease to be four questions but one answer.  Gnarls Barkley toils ever so soulfully in this complex confluence of emotions on The Odd Couple, their extraordinarily brazen follow up to 2006’s St. Elsewhere.


It’s immediately apparent that Danger Mouse and Cee-Lo are playing into the popular media’s perception of them by titling the album The Odd Couple. What is “odd” about Gnarls Barkley, however, is not so much their music or the way they dress as it is their refusal to abide by the rules of a bottom line-crippled industry. Billboard all but sequestered Danger Mouse and Cee-Lo for information about the album last year when it was slated for a fall release. Gnarls Barkley wouldn’t budge. The duo does not compromise their artistic integrity for the sake of a headline, even as they (or the label?) tease the public with a riddle of release dates.


That said, Gnarls Barkley is in the tenuous position of following up a hit album. All levels of music media, from Rolling Stone to the indiest of blogs, are watching and listening very closely in a completely different way than they did for St. Elsewhere. “Crazy” exploded in the U.S. months after St. Elsewhere debuted, yet The Odd Couple has been accorded the highest profile treatment possible weeks in advance of its release (including a short-lived controversy over the apparently seizure-inducing effects of the video for “Run”, the frenetic first single).  To really absorb this album, avoid the inevitable snark from those who stopped liking Gnarls Barkley after “Crazy” was embraced by the mainstream. The Odd Couple is an emotionally and musically provocative album. Despite its weighty subject matter, it’s also one hell of a fun listen.


The Odd Couple continues an alternately disturbing, comforting, and challenging exploration of the human mind that commenced on St. Elsewhere. The kaleidoscope of beats and melodies is still there, and so are the quasi-paranoiac lyrics. “Even my shadow leaves me all alone at night”, Cee-Lo laments on “Charity Case”, the opening track. The lyrics to “Charity Case”, and the majority of the material here, seem culled from a session with a psychiatrist. In lieu of medicine, music is the cure.  Call it therapy-a-go-go.


Like St. Elsewhere, the songs play like dramatic vignettes connected by the drone of a film reel.  It’s an effective tactic, and not only because it underscores Danger Mouse and Cee-Lo’s proclivity to appear in the drag of well known film characters.  Consistent with the short narrative structure of the songs, Cee-Lo embodies different personas on each track. On “Run”, he sounds like a sage who’s seen the future, frantically warning, “Either you run now or best get ready to die”. “Whatever” mocks the whiny emo archetype, while “Neighbors” tells a chilling tale about the insidious nature of envy. The most eerie character of all is Cee-Lo’s dastardly portrayal of a “Would Be Killer”. His exaggerated, sinister enunciation emphasizes our fixation with and glorification of violence in popular culture, especially of the “torture porn” variety. 


Resignation and loneliness are the building blocks of “Who’s Gonna Save My Soul”. Cee-Lo sounds weathered and beaten, “Tired enough to lay my own soul down”.  Conversely, he digs from the most primal recesses of his being on “Open Book”. Danger Mouse creates a jagged, broken beat that mirrors Cee-Lo’s breathless escape from the jungle of his conscience. He is defiant in the face of karma, “Take me / I am an open book”, he wails over a pseudo-Gregorian chant.


If there is a thematic thread that connects all of the disparate mise-en-scènes, it’s that Danger Mouse and Cee-Lo are very aware of their mortality. “I want to thank you friendly ghosts / When all the calls were close”, Cee-Lo sings on “A Little Better”, indicating all too intimate encounters with the hereafter. No one among us has the definitive answers about life or death, and Gnarls Barkley doesn’t claim to know anymore than we do. What The Odd Couple illustrates is that there’s a kind of beauty in not knowing, a common thread of uncertainty that binds us together.


The one thing that is certain is that The Odd Couple will mean different things to different people. Some will search for “Crazy Part II”, while others will dissect the layers of instrumentation. Some will skip past “Would Be Killer”, while others will chuckle at its dark humor. The Odd Couple will be a panacea for the worries of 21st century life for some, and for others it will be an album that simply holds a solid 40 minutes of grooves. While music audiences continue to become more stratified, it’s rare that one album can so perfectly unite different factions of listeners for completely different reasons. Very “odd”, indeed.

Rating:

Christian John Wikane is a NYC-based journalist and music essayist. He's a Contributing Editor for PopMatters, where he's interviewed artists ranging from Paul McCartney to Janelle Monae. For the past three years, he's penned liner notes for more than 100 CD re-issues by legends of R&B, rock, pop, dance, and jazz. Since 2008, he's produced and hosted Three of Hearts: A Benefit for The Family Center at Joe's Pub. He is the author of the five-part oral history Casablanca Records: Play It Again (PopMatters, 2009). Follow him on Twitter @CJWikaneNYC. 


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Gnarls Barkley - Run
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