The least fans of Gnarls Barkley singer and former US Voice judge CeeLo Green have the right to expect from ‘Heart Blanche’ – its very title implying both a cleansing and the start of a new chapter – are some answers.
In the past, Green has been almost painfully honest in his lyrics. ‘Glockapella’, from 2004’s brilliant but little-heard ‘Cee-Lo Green… Is The Soul Machine’, found him going public on his anger with his estranged bandmates from Atlanta hip-hop outfit Goodie Mob. He has used his music almost as a form of therapy, discussing his pain in public as if to better understand it and treat it. And even here, during an elegy for Robin Williams, Philip Seymour Hoffman, John Belushi and others (‘Robin Williams’), what Green is really talking about is how dangerous it is when people hide their true feelings.
Yet there is no mention here of the 2012 incident where Green drugged a woman during a meal (he has not admitted the charge, but pled no contest: the court sentenced him to three years probation and 45 days community service). Not a word on the subsequent Twitter outburst, where he appeared to suggest that he believed rape was only rape if the victim could remember it (he apologised and described his tweets as “idiotic, untrue, and not what I believe”). So how much of a new start can this really be?
Disappointingly, the record takes the more mainstream-slanted, less individual tack adopted by his last proper solo album, 2010’s ‘The Lady Killer’. Anyone hoping he’d revisit the rampant and unrestrained eclecticism of his first two quite brilliant solo records will leave disappointed.
Instead, ‘Heart Blanche’, while bright and fizzy, feels a little bit conventional and ever so slightly syrupy and overstuffed. It’s as if CeeLo is trying to condense and funnel the full breadth of his creativity down too narrow a set of musical pipes.
The primary mode here is a colourful, melodic strain of party music, in thrall to ’70s disco and ’80s pop. You can see why Mark Ronson signed up to co-write and produce the peppy ‘Mother May I’. The feelgood vibes remain predominant even when CeeLo channels his psychedelic soul heroes, such as in ‘Tonight’, which finds him exhorting us to dance our way out of our constrictions and proclaiming “everybody’s a star”, but instead of George Clinton or Sly Stone, the overriding musical influence seems to be Irene Cara’s theme from Fame. ‘Working Class Heroes (Work)’ plonks the John Lennon sentiment into a groove that would have suited late Warners-era Prince, while ‘Est. 1980s’ doesn’t just namecheck Duran Duran, Culture Club and Madonna – it sounds like them, too.
None of this is necessarily a problem: ‘Heart Blanche’ is far from a poor record. At its best – ‘Sign Of The Times’, rescued from this year’s aborted ‘TV On The Radio’ project, finds CeeLo pleading for music to be given a chance to change lives over samples from Bob James’s theme to Taxi – it’s very good indeed. But from someone whose appeal relies so heavily on his openness and honesty, the album feels out of balance: like there’s a hole where its heart should be.