A decent album of pop-soul is dragged down by its three worst tracks, which also happen to be the record's biggest and boldest.
It’s been an eventful five years for CeeLo Green since he released his last proper album, 2010’s The Lady Killer. Riding high off of the tremendous success of the single (and PopMatters' #1 Song of 2010) “Fuck You”, CeeLo got a gig as a judge on NBC’s then-new singing competition The Voice, reunited with his ‘90s rap group the Goodie Mob, and released a Christmas album. On the downside, he was accused of sexual battery in 2012 and released a flurry of tweets concerning his thoughts on rape when the trial ended in the summer of 2014, leading to the now-traditional deleting of the celebrity Twitter account and its eventual reinstatement, minus the controversial statements.
So CeeLo begins Heart Blanche in a much different position, one where he’s trying to make a comeback instead of riding the goodwill from his success in Gnarls Barkley and a great opening single. To make matters worse for Green, the lead single from the new album is “Robin Williams”, one of the record’s most problematic tracks. Buoyed by catchy vocal percussion and a spare beat and keyboard line, the song has an earworm of a chorus that shows off a different musical side of Cee-Lo than most of his previous singles while still sticking to the pop-soul genre that’s been his stock in trade. Lyrically, though, the song has well intentioned but poorly executed ideas. It wants to be a tribute to great comedians who have died by suicide or their own self-destructive impulses, anchored by the line “We don’t know what the next man’s going through.” So Green mentions not just Robin Williams but also John Belushi and Chris Farley. Then he throws in Phillip Seymour Hoffman (timely but not a comedian), and, more egregiously, Richard Pryor and Phil Hartman, neither of whom passed away by their own hand. The inclusion of people who don’t fit the song’s lyrical premise not only muddles the message, it cheapens the already-questionable decision to name a song after Williams so soon (less than a year at the time the single was released) after his death.
“Robin Williams” comes just before the halfway point of Heart Blanche and the album improves markedly on the other side of that song. But by that time the damage has been done, not just by “Williams” but by two other embarrassingly miscalculated songs. The album opens with “Heart Blanche Intro”, 90 seconds of disco-style soul where CeeLo literally invites the listener to listen in as he bares his soul. It promises a good time and the intro seems to indicate that CeeLo is ready to deliver. Then “Est. 1980s” begins and immediately sends the album into a downward spiral. CeeLo recounts all of his musical obsessions from the early and mid-1980’s, listing everyone from Michael Jackson to Mötley Crüe and Billy Idol to Run DMC. It’s not a creative list, but it an honest one. I also went to elementary school in the 1980’s and those were the people I listened to as well; kids rarely seek out esoteric artists. The problem comes with “Est. 1980s” music. This song is a straight-up ripoff of Bruno Mars’ 2012 hit “Locked Out of Heaven". Yes, we know “Locked Out of Heaven” was itself a pastiche of early-‘80s rock. But Mars and producer Mark Ronson took special care to get the sonic details so absolutely right that the song could’ve passed for a Police cover, but without sounding like any one specific song or lyrically drawing attention to the era it resembled. “Est. 1980s” just lazily follows Ronson’s template (subdued verses, soaring chorus, reverby guitar tones) while blatantly referencing the era. All the song does is reference the era through CeeLo’s nostalgia. It’s such a blatant “me too!” song that I’m surprised it wasn’t the lead single from the album.
The unimpressive but acceptable gospel-tinged ballad “Mother May I” comes next, followed by the wannabe dance floor smash “Working Class Heroes”. The latter is exactly dumb enough lyrically, filled with “work hard for the weekend” platitudes, to have potential as a dance hit. The disco-style music, tinged with modern EDM sounds, certainly helps in that regard. And then comes “Tonight”, a note-perfect recreation of an ‘80s training montage song that nobody asked for. Beginning with a slow, dramatic, Jim Steinman-esque opening, the track takes off after 45 seconds, all towering synths, strings, brass, and thumping beats. If the Step Up movies ever do a flick set in the world of ‘80s dance, “Tonight” should definitely be used for their training montage.
The record’s much better back half begins with “Sign of the Times”, the only track from CeeLo’s TV on the Radio release to make the cut on the album. TV on the Radio used television theme songs as the beds of completely new songs. This particular one uses the melancholy Taxi theme to great effect with CeeLo’s low-key soul performance. Another standout is “Music to My Soul”, a short, catchy pop-soul track with strong hooks in both the verses, pre-chorus, and the chorus proper. The real gem of Heart Blanche is buried in the penultimate slot, though. “Thorns” goes full-on Motown soul with its arrangement, and CeeLo absolutely nails the Smokey Robinson style vocals. The song is reminiscent of the best moments of The Lady Killer and seems to indicate that operating in a ‘60s-inspired milieu may be where Green’s greatest vocal strengths lie.
Three bad songs on an album of 15 tracks shouldn’t sink the entire album. And it doesn’t sink Heart Blanche. Not quite. But it happens that those three tracks are probably the album’s biggest and boldest in one form or another. They leave an impression, and the impression is not a good one. The better material here is harder to find because of the weight of those tracks, and one wonders if CeeLo needs a stronger producing voice in his ear to help balance out his worst impulses. Someone like Danger Mouse, perhaps, could theoretically get him back on a more consistent track. Yes, that’s right, I am using the final two sentences of this review to advocate for a new Gnarls Barkley album.