Gnarls Barkley: St Elsewhere
You’ve heard the history-making single, now get a load of the genre-mashing album
The Charts. The Fab 40. The Rundown. The Hit Parade. Whatever you actually call them, our obsession with the weekly list of the top-selling singles in Britain almost borders on the autistic. Despite all the recent developments in how we actually obtain and listen to music, there isn’t another country in the world whose citizens take singles so seriously – it’s a national quirk, like looking stuff up on Ceefax or fighting each other when the pubs close. For the last 54 years people have measured out their lives in great Number One singles – or getting bitter about the deserving songs that were kept off the top spot: sorry to Dee-Lite’s ‘Groove Is In The Heart’, apologies to ‘God Save The Queen’ by the Sex Pistols and dagger eyes to Englebert Humperdinck from musos the globe over for thwarting the Fab Four’s ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’/’Penny Lane’. There’s even a website, www.everyhit.com, that lists each single released since 1952, alongside what number it got to in the Top 40. It’s insane but compelling stuff – and not just if you’re the kind of person that wants to know what was number 14 this week in 1974 (something called ‘Spiders And Snakes’ by Jim Stafford). Yes, albums are fine, but singles have a special magic all of their own.
Considering all this, then, it’s no surprise that Gnarls Barkley’s ‘Crazy’ is such a phenomenon. Making history as the first download-only single to reach the UK Number One, 31,000 people downloaded it the week before its physical release. But ‘Crazy’ isn’t just one of the biggest selling Number One singles in years, it’s also one of the only decent ones. For this alone we should be thankful – imagine the national shame if the history books recorded, say, Il Divo as breaking all the records. Because – and forget all that Guinness Book Of Records stuff for a moment – the real story here is not that Gnarls Barkley are selling virtual truckloads of MP3s, but that their music is so spine-tinglingly great.
Nominally the work of a fictional figure called Gnarls Barkley, no-one’s giving away any state secrets by revealing that ‘St.Elsewhere’ is actually the first collaboration between Danger Mouse and Cee-Lo Green. Danger Mouse you’ll know about: real
name Brian Burton, the Gorillaz producer, Macca-mashing ‘Grey Album’ genius and one of GQ magazine’s Men of the Year in 2004. Cee-Lo you might not have met: he’s the heavily-tattooed and near-spherical Atlantan soul singer that released two albums of kaleidoscopic neo-soul earlier in the decade and bettering even OutKast in the process. Cee-Lo also has a tendency to run around onstage in codpieces baring his belly, but we digress. It’s an inspired match. DM provides the crunk-pop futurebeats while Cee-Lo gets busy sounding like a heartbroken Stax singer from about 1965. Indeed, as the latter sings on ‘Necromancing’ (a song, incidentally, that appears to be about a having sex with someone while they die of an overdose): “the production is progressive/but the chords are retro”. The result of their union is a winning combination of groove and grit that manages the neat trick of sounding simultaneously timeless, familiar and totally forward-thinking.
You certainly won’t hear much else at the moment as inventive as this: while Cee-Lo croons softly about suicide, heartbreak, schizophrenia and the various skeletons in his closet, Danger Mouse assembles a consistently astonishing array of backwards accordions, horror movie strings, pinball funk, turbo-speed gospel samples and melting Spanish guitars. Sometimes, as on ‘Transformer’, you get the impression that he’s just messing about with the pitch controls, until he conjures another noise that sounds like giant robot cats on the rampage. Most of it’s aimed at the heart, like the eerie ‘Who Cares?’, which bounces along on lax hip-hop beats and ghostly choirs. But occasionally – ‘Storm Coming’’s digital duststorm, ‘The Last Time’’s glitterball swirl, the version of ‘80s indie types The Violent Femmes’ ‘Gone Daddy Gone’ – Gnarls skids about on the dancefloor in a puddle of beer with his shirt undone.
The ultimate effect’s dizzying: it’s that rare kind of album that you’ll want to listen to once and then start all over again from the top to make sure that you haven’t missed something. The best soul record of the century, it’ll also appeal to everyone: record nerds will love ‘St.Elsewhere’ for its detailed production and spry way with a sliced-up sample (note to any lawyers reading: they’ve all been cleared this time). Your dad will love the fact that, necrophilia aside, Cee-Lo really could’ve been singing these songs at any point in the last 45 years. Pop kids will be suckered by the hooks, and ‘St.Elsewhere’ will be the soundtrack to the summer and beyond.
It’s a hit.