Maybe pop music success just boils down to naming your song “Crazy.” The title’s history is a good one. There’s Patsy Cline’s woozy, weepy ballad; Seal’s cool ’90s hit; Aerosmith’s… Now Gnarls Barkley has taken it to the top of the British charts and it’s starting to make an impression here.
You couldn’t ask for a better single than “Crazy.” Its stuttering, opening line grabs you right away — “I remember when — I remember, I remember when I lost my mind/There was something so pleasant about that place…” — and you’re hooked into the momentum of a song punctuated by ghostly oooooh background vocals and the funk-soul wail of the chorus.
Gnarls Barkley is not a person, but rather a collaboration, between rapper/vocalist Cee-Lo Green and DJ Danger Mouse. The latter is known for The Grey Album, his mash-up of the Beatles’ White Album and Jay-Z’s Black Album. Cee-Lo was a member of the Atlanta hip-hop group Goodie Mob.
To hear Cee-Lo sing on St. Elsewhere is to wonder why he ever bothered to do anything else. I remember hearing the Timbaland-produced song “I’ll Be Around,” from 2004’s Cee-Lo Green… Is the Soul Machine on the radio, but it wasn’t that song that made me add his solo album to my wish list — it was “Crazy.” Green is relentlessly on point — screeching, crooning and harmonizing over himself in a way that recalls Terence Trent D’Arby, and even sometimes Erykah Badu. He can go from sounding like he’s moaning an old spiritual to sounding like he’s a newfangled preacher.
The cover of St. Elsewhere looks a lot like it feels, and the mentally-unstable theme pervades more than the hit single. With its eerie organ accompaniments and low, lamenting choruses, it sometimes feels like an episode of Scooby Doo crossed with a Motown reunion.
The music is so infectious — tambourines, chugging beats — that sometimes the lyrics come as a surprise. Gnarls Barkley gleefully, soulfully serves up meditations on suicide, necrophilia, loneliness and (sure, why not!) overzealous feng shui. It would be a great album to wallow in if it weren’t such quick-hit fun. “It’s even dark in the daytime,” Cee-Lo sings on “Just a Thought.” “It’s not just good, it’s great depression/When I was lost I even found myself looking in the gun’s direction.” Bummer.
There’s a lot of nihilistic talk on St. Elsewhere, but everything about Gnarls Barkley seems contrived as a show, from the duo’s disguise-like costumes to the way the songs seem to burst in and out, sometimes in less than three minutes. That’s probably a good thing, since tunes such as “Go-Go Gadget Gospel” and “Transformer” are so filled with frenetic samples and repeated vocals that a little of them goes a long way.
Listening to St. Elsewhere for too long makes me want to just — do something BAD. Cee-Lo’s devilish and charismatic vocals go along with Danger Mouse’s slightly off-kilter funk in such a way as to suggest that the world is all just a big cartoon anyway.