Ten years from now -- or whenever it is we finally come up with a name for the decade we're currently living in (my vote is for "the aughts") -- no musical act will better epitomize the sound of the times than Gnarls Barkley.
With the duo's predilection for genre hopping (hip-hop, R&B, indie rock, gospel), ability to concoct a monster single ("Crazy"), and penchant for promoting itself with pop culture imagery (The Big Lebowski, Napoleon Dynamite), it's surely the most zeitgeist-capturing act around.
Essentially composed of a rapper who sings (Atlanta native Cee-Lo Green) and a mashup specialist who makes breathtakingly original beats (Atlanta/Athens native Danger Mouse), the pair somehow creates touching, soulful music. Buried beneath their technology, gimmicks and nerdy references lie universal truths that seem to reach people in different ways.
Take "Who's Gonna Save My Soul," a weepy lament off the group's sophomore album, The Odd Couple. Green says the song was written in memory of James Brown, but for the recently released video, he wanted something to convey the theme of heartache in general terms. So in the Chris Milk-directed video, a girl breaks up with her boyfriend at a diner. He then proceeds to cut open his chest with a butter knife, pull out his heart and place it on a saucer. The dripping organ then rises and begins to sing Cee-Lo's woeful lyrics into a stalk of broccoli.
It's a perfect depiction of the absurdity Gnarls Barkley uses to forgo ego and speak straight to the soul.
"I didn't want to ruin how someone might interpret [the song] by explaining my own personal reason for writing it," explains Green by phone from NBC Studios in Burbank just before the group's recent appearance on "The Tonight Show."
The Odd Couple speaks to the pain he has felt over his parents' deaths; his father passed when he was only 2, and his mother died when he was a teenager just before he achieved his first taste of success with Atlanta legends Goodie Mob.
Working with Danger Mouse, whose real name is Brian Burton, has been particularly therapeutic for him. "The production quality of Danger Mouse just compels me to be very introspective," he says. "I'm not sure why it does that to me, but it does, and it happens in a very genuine, honest way. And I think it resonates to people."
While the pair's debut, St. Elsewhere, was experimental and genre-defying, it never shimmied too far away from dance-pop and rock ditties. The Odd Couple is more esoteric throughout, featuring some instantly catchy pop hybrids, including "Charity Case" and "Run (I'm a Natural Disaster)." But it also has its share of such somber, soul-skewering tracks as "No Time Soon" and "She Knows."
In many ways it's a more focused, complex and satisfying album. While many critics have focused on its dark themes, Green prefers to point out its optimism. "Sure, it's moody and melancholy and all those things, but there is a silver lining to it," he says.
The Odd Couple has sold significantly fewer copies than the group's platinum debut. (Of course, that'll happen when your album lacks a smash like "Crazy" and you're forced to release it three weeks early due to Internet leaks.) Nonetheless, Gnarls Barkley remains extremely popular, touring the world and garnering radio play in unlikely places – like my local grocery store. That's something of a minor miracle, considering the pair is such an, um, odd couple.
They hooked up after Green asked Burton to submit tracks for a solo album. "I don't make tracks; I make albums," Burton famously responded. Green was impressed. "Out of 10 things he played me, I'm sure seven of them went onto what is now known as St. Elsewhere."
Green says he and Burton continue to grow closer, and that they complement each other well: "I describe our relationship as him being a picket fence around my garden of wildflowers."
He adds that they have every intention of doing another album together, but first it looks like he'll be reuniting with Atlanta's down-home rap trailblazers Goodie Mob. When Gnarls Barkley finishes its tour in August, Green plans to take a week off, then jump right into working on an album with the group that first brought him fame. "We'll let a few people hear it and see what they think," he says regarding early Goodie Mob material. "It may cause quite a frenzy, but it's all informal and idealistic at this point."
The project comes at a time when Green's music grows increasingly divergent from that of his peers. Goodie Mob's Big Gipp, for example, released a collaboration with Ali of Nelly's St. Lunatics last year called Kinfolk, which stuck to the well-tread Southern club sound. Green, however, doesn't pass judgment. "I am more about coexisting. I believe there's a time and a place for all things. Music doesn't necessarily have to convey a message; it can just be to entertain you."
Still, if Green has anything to say about it, a return to individualism will be what the decade of Gnarls Barkley is remembered for most. "We want to empower people to be themselves. There are quite a few people who aren't themselves. It's not because they don't want to be; it's just that they don't know how to go about it," he says, concluding with conviction: "You have to be fierce."
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