Those caught in the precarious position of providing critical analysis of Gnarls Barkley’s sophomore album, The Odd Couple, thus far all seem to agree on one thing: Cee-Lo Green, the poor thing, has a serious case of the gloomies. “It’s plain to see/That I got a whole lot of pain in me/And it will always remain in me,” he sings in “A Little Better,” The Odd Couple’s closing track, while Danger Mouse’s ambient samples of major and minor chords that make no sense together hum sleepily in the background. I mean, here we have a record on which a man who once referred to himself as “the soul machine” posits the question of who’s gonna save his soul. Hard times, come again no more, right?
Thing is, I don’t buy Cee-Lo’s brand of deep, inner anguish. Well, I guess technically I do buy it, insofar as I did shell out ten bucks plus tax for this record, but Cee-Lo’s lamentations on The Odd Couple don’t exactly strike me as authentic heartbreak of the Blood on the Tracks variety. No matter what the actual words are, this just isn’t stuff that grips you by the aorta and sends you squealing miserably back to every wretched night you spent in your bedroom as a teenager, watching Wonder Years reruns and pining like a sissy for unrequited love and lost childhood. At the end of the day, Gnarls Barkley are incapable of providing that. Their music is too neurotic and unfocused, the songs too brief, to ever really dig at anything serious. Unless you consider the deep-seated need to get down and groovy to be serious – which, of course, I do.
All told, The Odd Couple is still way more of a throwdown than it is an artistic illustration of the human condition, and thank God. Much has been made of this album’s refusal to put forth a second “Crazy,” but I don’t think that’s all that relevant either. I’d confidently wager that “Crazy” was created in much the same manner that the rest of Gnarls Barkley’s music is created – which is to say, accidentally. Gnarls Barkley’s songs succeed on the whole because they sound like aural shrapnel left over from a big, groovy, psychedelic explosion. And that’s not to discredit Danger Mouse’s knack for subtlety; one needs but listen to either of Gnarls’s records for a glimpse of the man’s remarkable attention to detail. What it does mean is that he never really feels the need to expound on his ideas, and as a result the songs end up sounding less like songs in the traditional sense and more just the loose entertainment of sonic musings, fading in and out so as to present the most engaging snapshots of the bigger picture
What this does for the music is allow for spry, agile transitions and a continued call for attention. Even when the songs themselves are unremarkable, they don’t last long enough to become truly boring. The low points of the record – the forgettable “Neighbors,” the unfortunately whiny emo parody “Whatever,” the tuneless and charmless “Would Be Killer” – never get a chance to really sag, because as soon as they start to suggest that they might, something better kicks in. The high points, however – the 1960’s throwback poolside bop-o-rama “Surprise,” the undeniably funky single “Run,” the achingly lovely “Who’s Gonna Save My Soul,” on which the soul machine hums and churns as if it were fresh off the assembly line – all present pop music at its absolute finest: catchy, accomplished, and convincing without being pretentious.
So, the million-dollar question: is The Odd Couple as good as its predecessor, 2006’s album of the year St. Elsewhere? My short answer would be probably not, but to tell the truth I can’t come up with a terribly convincing reason why. The best I can offer is this: When St. Elsewhere first appeared, the brand of hip-hop soul that it so freakadelically introduced was one of the freshest things to show up on the popular music radar in eons, and novelty is, by its very nature, not a long-term guest. Simply put, a second Gnarls Barkley album is slightly diminished by the fact that we’ve heard Gnarls Barkley before. Sure, The Odd Couple is not a perfect record, but few records are, and anyway that misses the point. Gnarls’s music is, at its core, a glimpse of two extremely talented individuals indulging their musical flights of fancy. Like most ideas from great minds, some are good and some are bad, but they’re all at least worth entertaining,