Gnarls Barkley’s Switch from ADD Workouts to Xanax Meditations

Will it help them evade one-hit-wonder status?

Call it the double-edged sword of an initial smash single: Being acknowledged and assured coverage comes with the caveat of constant comparisons to your past. How can you follow something made in your infancy, nearly destined to define you? How do you escape one-hit wonder status? Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy," the hit single in question, came from St. Elsewhere, a lightning- and firecracker-laden disc benefiting from producer Brian "Danger Mouse" Burton's infamous short attention span and Thomas Callaway/Cee-Lo Green's versatile vocals. Danger Mouse produced the Black Keys' latest album, Gorillaz' Demon Days, and the classic Jay-Z/Beatles mash-up The Grey Album. He also collaborated with famed British graffiti artist Banksy to replace 500 Paris Hilton CDs at music stores in the U.K. with pirated copies featuring disturbing album art and a 40-minute music mix played over the hotel heiress' quotes. All was out of context and brilliant, much like Gnarls themselves. For publicity shoots, the pair has dressed like characters from Star Wars, A Clockwork Orange, The Wizard of Oz—even Hunter S. Thompson and attorney—and despite that patchwork of fun, "Crazy" still comes to mind before all else. It's not that "Crazy" was overplayed, just that the rest of St. Elsewhere was underplayed and -rated, and "Crazy" said little about what lay in store: with a remake of the Violent Femmes' "Gone Daddy Gone," the retro-spookfest-in-need-of-Quentin-Tarantino-visuals "The Boogie Monster," and the Motown throwback "Smiley Faces," it all sounded like a best-of mix for an intense and frenzied fiesta. Borrowing from OutKast's recipe of updating soul for the dance floor, the nuanced and eclectic "Crazy" managed to be all tempos at once, hitting an un-pin-downable sweet spot echoed by the stage and press personas of Danger Mouse and Cee-Lo. If St. Elsewhere was the party disc, Gnarls Barkley's follow-up, The Odd Couple, is either the sound track for the after-party or the next-day walk of shame. Despite the release hustle (Internet leaks pushed the release date up two weeks) and the jokes that it's an hour-long SSRI commercial, it's really an hour-long Xanax meditation, less exuberant than mid-tempo paranoia, an existential pondering caught in the middle of the dance floor. The first single, "Run (I'm a Natural Disaster)," features Justin Timberlake emceeing a disco/Soul Train dance party amidst epilepsy-inducing flashing lights and satin hot pants, but still seems oddly dark. While "Crazy" provided backup for aimless drives on sunny days, "Run" is written for the sprint to the finish line, but it's a quirk in an album that otherwise reins in the frantic pace, the rough edges, and unbridled joy in favor of deeper grooves. "I don't have any friends at all/'Cause I don't have anything in common with y'all," begins Cee-Lo on "Whatever," against a slew of garage-rock drums, blunted synthesizers, and tinny backup vocals on material made not like those amplified firecracker tunes, but for the hip-swagger-and-strut set. Even bubblegum pop ballads like the flawless "Blind Mary" make use of scratchy, distorted vocals. In "Open Book," Danger Mouse comes close to Tricky-does-retro soul; it's utterly sad and destined for repeat. On "Who's Gonna Save My Soul?" Cee-Lo sings "Maybe it's a little selfish/All I have is a memory/Yet I never start to wonder/Is it possible you were hurting worse than me?" with more felt emotion than the words warrant. Now, how would it be possible to be hurting worse than that dude? And why would he be so glum, anyway? (The last track, the Curtis Mayfield-ian sauntering soul jam "A Little Better," is reportedly about Green's parents dying.) St. Elsewhere used the spirit of Al Green as a foundation before adding layers of playful tweaks; songs on The Odd Couple are less pastiche/copy-paste and more warbly, jaded, fun house distortions of retro pop blues. By easing back and expressing more nuances—to say nothing of kicking down the tempo—Gnarls Barkley's sound is a less radio-friendly, more unsettling brand of emo-soul. It's Danger Mouse's trickery and effects that are subdued, leaving more of the soul-busting inherent sadness of Cee-Lo's gospel vocals to shine through. And despite the soaring, bone-chilling sounds, Cee-Lo remains one sad dude. The best way to follow up a huge dance hit? Write an album that begs to be listened to in its entirety many times. There are, after all, more weekday mornings and twilights in need of musical accompaniment than there are weekend nights. And here is the disc for those moments.

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