In the wake of their debut album, St. Elsewhere, the odds seemed good that Gnarls Barkley would end up a one-album phenomenon. This wasn’t for any evident lack of commitment to the project on the parts of deejay/producer Danger Mouse and emcee Cee-Lo, or because it sounded too insubstantial to carry on. Even before a single beat reached the street, the collaboration seemed to feed on the energy of two artists who would naturally be eager to tear on to the next experiment. The already established outsider bent of each contributor, the habit of appearing in the press costumed as Clockwork Orange-style droogs, or Napoleon Dynamite and Pedro, it seemed even they were conscious of their own novelty appeal. With the sensation Gnarls created on their first outing, stakes are high for the follow-up.
“Charity Case” opens The Odd Couple, making sweet promises for the rest of the album. It whispers of mischief in the shimmering, mod hi-hat percussion, staccato “oohs” interspersed with breathy “aahs.” It kicks off a succession of elements that create a ’60s vibe, such as the psyche-folk backing harmonies and tumbling surf-rock drums on “Surprise,” pop-star hand-claps on “Going On,” and the simple yet energetic organs on “Run.” Cee-Lo’s style of confessional, self-deprecating introspection and wicked humor – probably the most unconventional lyrical stance in hip hop – is still present. “Whatever” is a pretty funny exorcism of the demons of disaffected narcissism. “Blind Mary” probably won’t ever be heard over commercial radio waves, but it’s The Odd Couple’s glittering high point. It comes close to arresting with its willing weirdness – a dreamy, carnival-esque ode to a woman who “has never seen the sunshine, yet she’s getting along just fine.”
On one hand, The Odd Couple is a risky departure from St. Elsewhere. It’s pretty bold for an act whose commercial success was built around one anthemic single to release an album with no standouts that makes more sense as a unified piece of music, with each track building subtly on the overall mood. Eventually, however, it starts to sound like the less-inspired leftover material from the Elsewhere sessions. The details Danger Mouse worked into the songs on that album reflected and expanded on whatever emotional territory his vocalist felt like opening up – abandon, anxiety, fear, joy. When Cee-Lo’s mood was laid-back, Danger Mouse’s beats were atmospheric. When Cee-Lo kicked up the emotional stakes, the music became frenetic, wistful, and ecstatic. Perhaps angling for a consistent flow this time, Danger Mouse eschews his strength of throwing everything at a song to see what sticks, and lets Cee-Lo’s vocals do most of the heavy lifting. Mouse backs him with only timid forays across genres and pedestrian instrumental backup.
The benefit and the risk of making music that eludes categorization is that such acts set their own standard for their style, and they set the very bar against which all of their other efforts are measured. On The Odd Couple, Gnarls Barkley gets halfway to the heights of St. Elsewhere and seems content to stay there.