Music News

The Gospel According to Gnarls

St. John of the Cross, a 16th-century Spanish mystic, described something called "the dark night of the soul," which he defined as that necessary descent on the way to salvation. His visions in the abyss of self-reflection were weird, beautiful, and (in hindsight) all the redemption he needed.

Fast-forward to late 2003: Brian Burton — AKA DJ Danger Mouse — suffers through panic attacks while chopping, screwing, and mashing together the Beatles' White Album and Jay-Z's The Black Album. Around the same time, he and Thomas Callaway — AKA Cee-Lo Green — complete "Crazy," a song of exquisite psychological torment that has become one of the most ubiquitous hits of the 21st Century. The duo donned a variety of guises (tennis players, superheroes, astronauts, scientists) and named themselves Gnarls Barkley.

Marketing campaigns included leaking "Crazy" prior to release and blocking their identities in ads that asked, "Who is Gnarls Barkley?" In the end, their conscious exploitation of visionary madness turned out to be more fun and profitable than either could have guessed: "Crazy" has dominated U.S. and U.K. charts, and the duo has been nominated for four Grammy Awards.

"We didn't talk about music at all, hardly," Cee-Lo says of the recording. "A lot of things went without saying. All the struggle and the tension, that controlled chaos was already there in the tracks themselves. I recognized and became humbled by that and lifted up at the same time. [The music] was a kind of company in a space and an experience that I had endured myself. I had a chance to see something very present about Danger Mouse through his production that empowered me to be as present as I was lyrically, because I had company in that space. It was a conversation between us. We were just trying to impress each other at the time."

St. Elsewhere, Gnarls Barkley's debut album, is a concept record of psychological disintegration and funk recombination. The album was carefully constructed: Danger Mouse built tracks from a head-spinning range of soundtrack samples and live grooves, and Cee-Lo sang macabre, introspective lyrics that recalled Sly Stone's There's a Riot Goin' On. Somehow, his high-on-soul vocals are pushed further by Danger Mouse's brainy aesthetic.

"I've never met anyone quite like Danger Mouse," Cee-Lo says. "He is a walking iPod of music. At the same time, he's a very regular guy. People wonder, how could a regular guy write 'Crazy'? You'd think that would fall out of the sky. Danger Mouse is a very meat-and-potatoes guy, very intense, very meticulous. I need that. He's the picket fence around my garden of wildflowers."

Danger Mouse's slashing and crashing approach to grooves coalesces fully on "Crazy," a late-'70s Curtis Mayfield soul throwback that turns tension into a beautiful catharsis. "There was something so pleasant about that place," Cee-Lo sings with a raspy ease. "Even your emotions had an echo in so much space." The song doesn't chill or thrill because it's paranoid but because it makes paranoia sound so delicious.

"You wouldn't be able to see yourself in it if it was completely dark," Cee-Lo explains. "It's like a starry night. Something dimly lit, moody, or melancholy would be more suiting. Completely dark and detached? I disagree. So many people found it relevant, you know what I'm saying? Striking, yes. Honest, yes. The music is symbolic of a truth that we're in denial of. It becomes even darker when you're confronted with what you deny in your own life. It represents those thoughts and notions that we have to ignore so that we're not bound by them."

St. Elsewhere is bound by very little. Songs include (but aren't limited to) confessions of suicidal thoughts and munchkin voices whispering in the shadows; medleys of Willie Dixon and a Violent Femmes cover; and heavily synthesized necrophilia or homages to Katrina and the Waves. There's even the Wham! bounce and Galaga gaming whirs of the album's second single, "Smiley Faces."

"We didn't do it consciously," Cee-Lo says of these echoes of the '80s. "And not to imitate but to revel in the same spirit. A lot of my private and unspoken inspiration is that era in music, which was colorblind, unbiased. It received and embraced everyone. The Eurythmics and Culture Club, the Talking Heads and Duran Duran — we all knew these records. We aspired to music of such broadness and diversity."

With his earlier collaborations Cee-Lo had already demonstrated his intuitive feel for reworking gospel, both in sound and vision. (He was a co-founder of the Atlanta rap crew Goodie Mob, recorded an album with Southern rap luminaries under the name Dungeon Family, and released two neo-soul solo albums.) But on St. Elsewhere, even over chaotic pastiches such as "Storm Coming," that revision is pushed as far as possible. And without ever invoking them directly, the album is an homage to his deceased parents (both of whom were ministers in Atlanta) and to his own enduring pain over losing them in his youth.

"It's definitely a blood type, an inheritance," he says of his roots. "Gospel is synonymous with praise. I'm humble before my maker when I sing. I'm praising him not due to what the song is about but in the motivation, somewhere in my mind, the memory of some pain, something tragic or traumatic, like when I lost my mother. It may not be in the actual song, but it's always there in the way I am grounded and in what has driven me to art.

"This probably is my most honest work," he continues. "Prior to this record, I've heard comments that I am almost too good to be true, I'm always optimistic, I hardly ever have anything negative to say. I've always tried to be encouraging, and I'm very appreciative and grateful. Music spared me. But spared me from what? That's where Gnarls Barkley comes in. No, I'm not too good to be true; I'm very human. This record opened me up and allowed me to continue to do what I want to do, which is to speak on behalf of people, but not from an elevated platform but to speak for the people, by the people, right there within the people. You know what I mean?"

The greatest strength of St. Elsewhere lies in its inversion of one of hip-hop's greatest strengths: The album barely recognizes the world of popular culture and draws little political or aesthetic power from it. Instead, Gnarls Barkley's songs tunnel inside private experience via a scrambled dystopia of funk and brittle rock. There's a glimmer of spiritual salvation at the end of the journey, but only after facing your own truths first — even if that means confessing, as Cee-Lo does on "Just a Thought," that he'd just as soon check out once and for all.

"'Just a Thought' is exactly what it is," he says. "You cannot be held in contempt for something that crosses your mind. I'm alive and well and here to testify that I myself have been that person, have been up against that wall. But obviously, I'm here. I have endured and overcome.

"I don't want people to misconstrue it as present day for me. The album is very introspective; I've experienced it here and there. There's a lifetime of experience there. But we're still trying to entertain you. I was surprised that my most personal writing was as entertaining as it was.

"So the record is triumphant," he concludes. "There's a silver lining to all of it. Even the last line of that song is 'I'm fine. '"

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Roy Kasten
Contact: Roy Kasten