Let’s forget, for a moment, about all the extraneous pieces of information surrounding the existence of Gnarls Barkley. Never mind that its first single, “Crazy”, was a pre-release record-breaker in the UK, or that it has a kitschy proclivity for motion picture-themed costumes, or that one-half of its creative team, Danger Mouse, has enjoyed a sudden ubiquity in channel-crossing hipness thanks to his loose-canon Grey Album mash-up. These are the sorts of “buzz ideas” that the media (and, consequently, its audience) continues to traipse around in a typically detached group mentality, all of which have (largely) nothing to do with the actual music made by the group (though they certainly delight its PR firm).
As it turns out, that big chart-razing single is an understatement of colossal proportions: Gnarls Barkley is certifiable. The collaboration between sound technician Danger Mouse and astral soul brother #1 Cee-Lo Green is scatterbrained and compulsive, a collective of voices in varying degrees of twitchy, restless (in)sanity competing for one mind. The duo’s album, St. Elsewhere, its very title an allusion to an ’80s television show that took place inside someone’s head, is the straightjacket of sorts, the attempt to assemble and unify all the squirming, intersecting ideas into some kind of coherency. Danger Mouse and Cee-Lo are, effectively, trying to Harry Houdini their way out of it all.
So wait, Gnarls Barkley is magic? Not exactly, although our attention may frequently be sidetracked by the plethora of madness that spills from the duo’s trick-bag. St. Elsewhere was produced in the increasingly common “via mail” practice, a method that breeds ol’ fashioned one-upmanship: each building block sent from Danger Mouse to Cee-Lo and vice versa was a freaky attempt to out-weird the other. That deprived pursuit of oddity is St. Elsewhere‘s defining action, the thing that ignites it deep into pop cultural outer space. The result is filthily refreshing and beside itself with ingenuity, a beastly union of early Mothers of Invention crudity with the combustible sexuality of Diana Ross and George Clinton.
Whoa, so Gnarls Barkley is challenging? Sorta, but only in that soul-band-fumbling-around-for-the-tiny-shards-of-its-splintered-consciousness kinda way. Think of it like this: the Supremes starring in Moonraker. That’s the Gnarls Barkley aesthetic. Song upon song bears a multi-tracked choir of trembling, throaty Cee-Los, like Motown’s greatest girl group cloned umpteen times and hauled shrieking through a wormhole studded with nightmares, fantasies, and other pieces of morally ambiguous paranoia. (While I do realize that Cee-Lo is a man, he’s probably the one contemporary male soul vocalist who recognizes the importance of getting comfortable with his inner Diana Ross.) That unshakeable feeling of gleeful dread is all over the album, from the eerie background choir in “Crazy” and the haunted house organ in “Smiley Faces” to the vocals that nervously claw over each other in “St. Elsewhere” and the more explicit Halloweenisms in the Zappa-esque “The Boogie Monster”.
“The Boogie Monster” self-consciously mocks the Gnarls Barkley madness (Cee-Lo’s “boo-ha-ha” vocal is like Ray Charles in a plastic Nixon mask), just as “Crazy” un-self-consciously engages in it (stuttered line reads — “who do you / who do you / who do you / who do you / who do you think you are?” — and sudden chuckles abound). “Just a Thought”, sequenced midway through the album, is the moment of critical mass where the cartoonish edge is buffed away. “Why is this my life? / Is almost everybody’s question,” Cee-Lo sings as giant distorto-drums from the lair of Fridmann-via-Bonham attack the mix in bad-dream swells. As he continues to grapple with the quandaries of existence, he admits, “I’ve tried everything but suicide / But it’s crossed my mind” in one of the infrequent spaces where the drums aren’t pounding the life out of the track. Amidst all the noise that Danger Mouse stirs up, Cee-Lo’s the one who heads straight for the gut, his charred voice an escapee from a Sunday morning gospel congregation, caught on the third rail while trying to fly off the rails. He’s the humanizing element in an otherwise conceptual tour de force.
OK, so Gnarls Barkley is… what, exactly? I’m not sure, to tell you the truth, and I think it’s better left that way. It’s likeable enough that it can cover a borderline-mediocre song by a forgettable band (the Violent Femmes’ “Gone Daddy Gone”) and make it engaging, and just delusional enough to make a song about obsessive organization (“Feng Shui”) flutter around in disarray. It’s not a soul band in the traditional sense, but Gnarls Barkley has more of those traditional soul complexes (ache, guilt, doubt) imbedded in its DNA than 99% of the trend-conscious schlock that passes for R&B these days. Even in its most excessively bizarre moments (e.g. “Transformer”, a club anthem having a psychotic episode, or the nerve-wracking fanfare of opener “Go-Go Gadget Gospel”), St. Elsewhere speaks to those irrepressible moments of trauma-addled privacy, sympathizing with the closeted thoughts and urges that drive us to gauge our own sanity. Cee-Lo’s attempt at a more economic explanation is, fittingly, both contradictory and unsure: “Basically, I’m complicated.” Precisely.