Gnarls Barkley's St. Elsewhere, a figment of Danger Mouse and Cee-Lo's imagination, is just that -- elsewhere. Extreme alienation ("Crazy"), boogie monsters ("The Boogie Monster"), obsessive-compulsive disorder ("Feng Shui"), toys ("Transformer"), suicide ("Just a Thought"), necrophilia ("Necromancing") and dancing ("The Last Time") are all fallout from the duo's exploding pop, a blast depicted on the album cover as a nuclear mushroom cloud. Their music is unashamedly neurotic, a quality Cee-Lo happily cries out during the opening track, "Go-Go Gadget Gospel."
"What you waiting on?" Cee-Lo declaims over a frenetic bounce track reminiscent of OutKast's "Bombs Over Baghdad." "I'm in action, passion, smiling, laughing, yielding, feeling, telling, healing! Introduce your name to your savior! I'm free!"
Cee-Lo is the only vocal performer on St. Elsewhere (aside from some background vocals by Tomika Walden and Menta Malone), and it's a tour de force for him. His lyrics are simple, with none of the complicated intellectual reasoning that defined his rap-oriented work with Goodie Mob. In fact, except for "Feng Shui," he doesn't rap at all.
But unlike Pharrell Williams or Andre 3000, Cee-Lo isn't an MC-turned-vocalist with lots of personality and little technique. He can raise his voice into a screech when he attempts to reach an unattainable level of ecstasy ("Transformer"), or smooth it out into a conversational lilt ("Who Cares?"), and even drop it down into a low, resonant croon ("Online"). Sometimes histrionic, he's not without humor. At the end of "The Boogie Monster," he lulls, "The wind's knocking at my window/I'd kill it but it's already dead/The only thing that'll bring me back alive, woman/Is some good, good head."
For his part, Danger Mouse weaves a near note-for-note re-creation of Violent Femmes' "Gone Daddy Gone," and returns to his downtempo roots on "St. Elsewhere." There are several throwbacks to '60s pop culture, from the Holland-Dozier-Holland swing of "Smiley Faces" and lounge exotica of "Feng Shui" to the album's shining powerhouse, "Crazy."
All of the 14 tracks, however, are guided by contemporary rhythms. Slow, frizzy electro ("Necromancing"), uptempo drum beats that click and patter, and multitracked esoterica, like trumpets and distorted guitar, keep St. Elsewhere grounded in the here and now.
Danger Mouse and Cee-Lo are St. Elsewhere's primary creators (and are supplemented by a battery of side musicians and songwriters, including Cypress Hill percussionist Eric Bobo, noted session trumpeter Chris Tedesco and pianist/composer Daniele Luppi). For both, it is their most explicitly commercial album to date. It's the next logical step for Cee-Lo after two solo albums that admirably pushed forward the boundaries of folksy hip-hop/soul, albeit without the beats to match his ambitions. For Danger Mouse, it follows a world-beating apprenticeship with Blur auteur Damon Albarn in Gorillaz, and a good but oddly unsatisfactory outing with MF Doom as Danger Doom (a project haunted by zany Adult Swim characters and Doom's superior Madvillainy precedent).
If Danger Doom's The Mouse and the Mask couldn't strike a balance between cool hip-hop idioms and silly, unpretentious TV culture, and Cee-Lo's solo efforts seemed musically restrained in comparison to his bravura vocal performances, then St. Elsewhere just goes for it. Already, rap fans are debating whether Gnarls Barkley is a Kanye West-like mix of hip-hop savvy and slickly populist brilliance, or an insincere and crass sellout move as potentially troublesome as the oft-misunderstood Black Eyed Peas.
St. Elsewhere isn't perfect. Some of the songs, particularly "Transformer," are hyperactive and annoying. But the great thing about the album is that Danger Mouse and Cee-Lo don't seem to care about impressing particular interest groups. Sometimes deliriously daffy, other times mordantly introspective, the duo's hipster (or, more accurately, hepster) cachet is substantiated by its willingness to plumb sounds and emotions deeper than simple genre identifications, and make pop music in the best sense of the word.