The Odd Couple
Audio from Gnarls Barkley, "Run":
Got some bad news this mornin,’ ” Cee-Lo Green sings, “which in turn made my day.” The about-face in this symmetrical couplet, near the start of Gnarls Barkley’s second album, is entirely in character. Like his partner, the producer Danger Mouse, Cee-Lo has a special place in his heart for the counterintuitive: miserable exuberance, sweeping miniatures, songs that sound both chipper and haunted.
It’s doubly fitting, then, that this album is called “The Odd Couple,” though in truth the same yin-and-yang formula held “St. Elsewhere,” the first Gnarls Barkley album, together. (Scour it anew, and you’ll find just as many natural opposites held in a curious balance.) As before, Cee-Lo plays the manic creative type, and Danger Mouse the closeted obsessive. Anguish and perturbation are their most fertile areas of overlap.
If this all seems a bit affected and arty for a pop album, well, so does the album. Packed with arid, minor-key cinematic flourishes — the film composer Ennio Morricone should get some sort of intellectual-property credit — it hovers between a timeless form of nostalgia and a timely strain of paranoia. There’s no single on the order of “Crazy,” the group’s breakout smash; “Run,” the closest thing, is pure adrenaline. “Run for your life!” Cee-Lo stridently urges in the chorus, without specifying where, or from what.
Strangely, given the unified palette and temperament, the album feels disjointed: one track doesn’t pull you to the next. (Often the songs fade or fizzle out.) This may be part of the push-pull strategy, but that’s not the impression given, and you can only wonder what Danger Mouse had in mind. It’s a bigger mystery than the one behind Cee-Lo’s more grating tracks (“Neighbors,” “Open Book”), which suggest unregulated spasms of ego.
There are some examples of deft and seamless partnership here, like the flute-garnished chill-out track “She Knows” and the new wave-inflected “Going On.” But then comes a ponderous glimpse into the mind of a sociopath, or a theatrical gesture of self-scrutiny. Only the closing song, “A Little Better,” offers a confession that feels true enough to savor.
“Oh, it’s probably plain to see/That I’ve got a whole lot of pain in me/And it will always remain in me,” Cee-Lo broods darkly, recalling a story suggestive of his tough upbringing in Georgia. But of course there’s a twist. “The circumstances put soul in me,” he adds, with a melodic upturn at the word “soul.” And when the chorus comes, with its nifty bass arpeggio and modest refrain (“I feel a little better”), the clouds seem to part, for just a moment.
It’s the most graceful moment on “The Odd Couple,” partly because it feels so uncalculating. Of course its power might also lie in its transience. What would happen, after all, if Gnarls Barkley were to wake up to some good news? Obviously the day would be ruined.