If life is a journey,
then a period in the past, when properly considered, is a single moment on the road. It’s the windows down at a certain angle, traffic flowing at a steady rate, your friend kicking back and absentmindedly ashing into the window frame or hanging out it like a dog and chucking apples at pedestrians.
It’s the sum of this strange spiderweb of possibilities, the scrambled eggs of external and internal pushes and pulls, the choices that could send us one way or another or wherever fate allows.
It’s chaos theory, according to Jeff Goldblum. The drop of water can only roll one way.
But, five years later, we must consider all of the potential futures if we want to assess our journey, if we want to see if we fucked up and really missed that off-ramp to Poughkeepsie that should have taken us there.
From this perspective, we can analyze where we thought we were going and eye these possible-futures in all their ridiculous glory.
And in 2008, on this particular downhill drive, it wouldn’t have been a long shot to conceive that the broken down jalopy of pop music – it’s muffler tape whipping dirty in the wind, wheels sputtering against the asphalt – would follow the signs pointing to Gnarls Barkley.
The city was growing in population. It appealed to a diverse background. It advertised a vision of a funky, post-racial future, a real future’s future, the kind that seemed futuristic even in the present. Armed with a charismatic “born star” for a lead singer and soundtracked by a man well-versed in a seemingly infinite library of dusty LPs, Gnarls Barkley’s sophomore disc “The Odd Couple” sounded like it was good enough to be Tomorrowland.
Of course, this future wasn’t waiting for “The Odd Couple” and its creators, Cee Lo Green and Danger Mouse. The real-future had something different in store. C-Lo would become an outsized television personality for a ratings blockbuster on the strength of the most un-PC radio single ever and Danger Mouse, he would continue to work as indie rock’s for-hire black friend, producing for everyone from The Shins’ James Mercer to Norah Jones to The Black Keys to U2.
In this way, its principal members have realized their possibility, only not in the way that I expected. If I were to tell me then that Gnarls Barkley would fade into the distance, becoming more like The Faces than The Rolling Stones, I would be surprised. I’m not now, because I lived everything in between.
So, that leaves us this album, “The Odd Couple,” a 13-song sophomore disc that, as far as we know at current-present, might be the last we hear from the union of these two merry soul pranksters.
First off, the album still gets off to great start, buzzing through a host of different styles with a slow-bowl-burn kind of melancholy. “Charity Case” enters on a relatively ambiguous note, its pseudo-western, ’60s disco-vibe seems neither down- or upbeat. It’s not hard to imagine Cee Lo, his wide cheshire cat grin spreading, as he leans his rear into the go-kart seat and chortles in the madness, spinning donuts in a parking lot.
“Who’s Gonna Save My Soul” continues to shroud Cee Lo in Clint Eastwood-era strings, a technique that would become one of Danger Mouse’s calling cards, before a gospel yawn introduces the album’s first danceable track, “Going On.”
The first half of the album is really the strength as it rushes headlong to “a place in the sun that’s nice and warm,” in the words of Cee Lo himself.
All these songs, “Who’s Gonna Save My Soul,” “Going On,” hyper first-single “Run” and “Would Be Killer” are strong, holding up over repeated listens, their only shortcoming being that they don’t have the same intangible greatness as “Crazy,” one of the most unique singles of the 2000s. Even “Open Book,” with its strange syncopated drum beat seems to overcome its left-field entrance to become a noteworthy experiment.
The subject matter is difficult, eschewing fun for weighty ideas, a move that no doubt was a factor in none of these singles reaching the status of their iconic hit.
The issue is that the engine really starts to sputter in the second half. The saccharine “Whatever,” a sort of soul song with a Nirvana mentality, seems to take inspiration from nails on a chalkboard, even if the chorus has individuality.
“Surprise,” “No Time Soon” and “She Knows” fall into the same rate of a kind of vanilla predictability, laying bare the fact that we’re really just on lap two of the same track. Or maybe it’s that we’ve heard these songs so many times now, filtered through other artists, that we can taste the imperfections.
While this may have seemed like a vision of the future from a promising band worthy of Gorillaz status, much of the benefit of the doubt fades in retrospect. After all, going around in circles can be fun, but later on you’ll wonder why you never went anywhere.
It’s “Going On” that writes this album’s own tombstone though:
“I’m going on and I’m prepared to go it alone…”
Unfortunately, for the band members, this album stands alone, and not just for the better.
Verdict: Interesting, if non-essential
The album will likely appeal to future listeners and creators based on the high profile of the individual band members. Think Roxy Music.
Pete Rizzo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.