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.

Author

Christina Nunez

Christina Nunez is an editor and producer for NPR Digital Media, based at KQED's headquarters in San Francisco. She coordinates books and arts coverage for NPR.org. You can find more of her writing at her Uncomfortable Moments blog.

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