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Revisit: Gnarls Barkley: St. Elsewhere

Revisit: Gnarls Barkley: St. Elsewhere

The incredible success of “Crazy” is something that seems impossible today.

The genre of R&B has been pulled in a million different directions over the past decade, but no one has been able to replicate what Gnarls Barkley did on St. Elsewhere. With shades of U.K. garage rock, trip-hop, psychedelia and just about everything you could possibly imagine, Cee Lo Green and Danger Mouse’s first spin as a duo still stands as one of the most unique debut albums in recent memory. Its commitment to a left field, melancholic state of mind makes its success only more remarkable. Just look at the cover, a mushroom cloud of mock utopianism, violence, cheap sex and, for good measure, a neon purple tiger.

With how iconic his voice became after 2010’s “Fuck You,” it really is amazing how malleable Cee Lo’s vocals are on St. Elsewhere and how Danger Mouse uses them to craft tracks that sound so markedly different from one another. The twitchy “Transformer” is the most obvious example – it’s the song’s whole shtick – but it also works in “Online,” where Cee Lo evokes a raspy, bassy growl that sounds like he could be narrating a ‘70s cop flick. He reorients to rap on the sleek, high fashion “Feng Shui” and stretches his delivery to play the light-footed lothario on “The Last Time.”

Of course, some of the album’s highest highs come when Cee Lo exists in his natural state, free to belt in his signature tenor. “Crazy” still sounds fresh today, probably because no artist has come close to mirroring it lyrically or sonically. Cee Lo’s words are brutally honest, at times fatalistic, and Danger Mouse’s beat, which bounces between plucky, bass-centric Motown soul on the verses and string-heavy melodrama on the hook, is flawless. “My heroes had the heart, to the lose their lives out on a limb/ And all I remember is thinking I want to be like them,” Cee Lo reflects at the start of the third verse, an explanation for his own eccentric, try-anything-once career.

The incredible success of “Crazy” is something that seems impossible today. With how fractionalized music has gotten, it’s hard to picture that kind of record reaching such a wide swath of listeners. In 2016, it would rack up a few million Spotify plays, sure, but it wouldn’t be a cultural force still ubiquitous enough that it remains in the rotation of coffee shops and would-be hip retailers.

“Smiley Faces” and “St. Elsewhere” both allow Cee Lo to cut loose, reflecting on how we face the contrivances and obstacles of our lives on the former and playing a haggard, nomadic loner on the latter. Danger Mouse gives him a modish bounce on “Smiley Faces,” with thick, drawn-out guitar notes and rich organs, while the title track is a cascade of cymbal-based percussion.

In retrospect, a few cuts here play as gratuitously weird. “The Boogie Monster” is cheesy, but at least it’s consciously built that way, with high-pitched electric piano chords that evoke 1930’s and ‘40s black-and-white Hollywood horror. Off-putting when it was released and even more troubling in light of Cee Lo’s ensuing controversial comments and actions, “Necromancer” is a thoroughly unpleasant listen and a waste of one of Danger Mouse’s more macabre instrumentals. Obviously, Cee Lo is playing a role here, but the lyrics are so violent and graphic that it’s still unpleasant to sit through. “Without a care/ I’m compassionate about killing her/ I’d have my way with what’s left of the will in her/ Cosmopolitans and cocaine and an occasional pill in her,” he sings.

In the decade since St. Elsewhere, neither party has been quite able to reach its heights. Cee Lo’s The Lady Killer was an endearing batch of Holland-Dozier-Holland style soul, but it didn’t have much staying power save for “Fuck You,” and while Danger Mouse has had plenty of success producing for Beck, The Black Keys and U2 (he helped craft Songs of Innocence, everyone’s favorite non-consensual iTunes download), he hasn’t crafted anything that embodies his maverick creativity quite as well. Even the duo’s 2008 sequel, The Odd Couple felt like a B+ imitation of their previous project. “Who’s Gonna Save My Soul?” and “A Little Better” are on par with St. Elsewhere, but where their debut feels spontaneous in style, sequencing and subject matter, their sophomore LP feels calculated, with tracks clearly trying to serve as counterparts to the original.

Rumors crop up periodically about a third Gnarls Barkley record, and this does feel like a more logical time for a revisit – The Odd Couple seemed rushed coming just two years later) – but with Danger Mouse now serving as the go-to producer for stadium-filling acts trying to rekindle their creative fire and Cee Lo still hashing out the current phase of his career (which includes a 2012 Christmas album bizarrely titled Cee Lo’s Magic Moment), it seems more and more like St. Elsewhere was a lightning-in-a-bottle moment between two proudly weird musical figures putting their strangeness on display and making the mainstream just a touch odder.

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