If there’s anything even close to postmodernism on the pop charts, it comes from Gnarls Barkley: the flash-in-the-pan pairing of rapper Cee-Lo and DJ Danger Mouse, now two albums deep into one of the most interesting careers on the musical horizon. Their signature sound mixes scrappy ’60s soul with modern studio wizardy — perfectly realized in the ’06 hit “Crazy,” which rivals “Hey Ya!” as the best song of this decade — and confounds sunny melodies with lyrics too blue for the dark side of the moon. (Recall that half the magic of “Crazy” was that Cee-Lo had us convinced of its central line: “Maybe I’m crazy…probably.”)
Now the duo returns with The Odd Couple, which they sprung on the general public last month with absolutely no marketing. From the getgo, the album starts in the same place as 2006’s St. Elsewhere — with the sound of a flickering movie reel, as if to signify that the next 39 minutes are some type of surrealist show. And the filmic metaphor doesn’t stop there: this year’s Odd Couple, an obvious allusion to the ’70s TV show, continues the joke started by Elsewhere — which namechecks a lesser-known Denzel Washington TV series from the ’80s. It’s as if Danger Mouse, perhaps most famous for his 2004 mash-up of Jay-Z and Beatles snippets that inspired just as many remixes as it did lawsuits, still feels the need to prove his pop culture credentials. But just because an idea was innovative in the first place doesn’t mean it’s original the second time around; you never hear about the second guy who invented the lightbulb.
And that’s the problem that plagues most of The Odd Couple: it’s a sonic rehashing of St. Elsewhere, and its lyrics develop nothing outside of Cee-Lo’s growing urge to sing shit we can’t understand. Not that he doesn’t drop a few memorable lines — both “It’s cool being the only one/But it’s lonely” from “Surprise” and the juxtaposition of “runaway child” and “run away, child” on “Run” hold up over time. But as far as comparing The Odd Couple to modern alternative genre classics, Gnarls doesn’t weave repeated musical mantras into the framework like Beck did on Odelay; nor do they explore an album-length lyrical theme like Radiohead has ever since OK Computer.
That said, the album pars St. Elsewhere on a track-for-track basis. Nothing is quite as brilliant as “Crazy,” but “Going On” and the aforementioned “Surprise” come damn close. “Going On,” a must-have for any ’08 indie mixtape, rapidly switches between psychadelia and trip-hop and presents one of the most tangible lyrical theses on the album: its a song about how hopeful Cee-Lo is the moment he dies. And “Surprise,” which truth be told might as well be called “Going On Pt. 2,” is a morbid reworking of the ba-ba-ba’d acid pop exemplified in ’60s hits like the Turtles’ “Happy Together.” Even first single “Run (I’m A Natural Disaster),” which sounds way better in the context of this album than in the context of pop radio, is another example of the minor-key pop mastery that Gnarls is capable of in their best moments. It’s certainly saying something when a band’s brightest moments are also its darkest.
It’s fitting, then, that The Odd Couple‘s worst tracks are its poppiest. “Whatever,” a bratty fuck-off that stunts the album midway through, is not only immature but also an irresponsibly blatant reworking of the chord structure from the Violet Femmes’ “Gone Daddy Gone” — which Gnarls themselves covered on their last disc. And the catchy “Blind Mary,” despite a great intro that sounds half Nintendo and half Sgt. Pepper, just doesn’t sound as good the second time around. Other songs can be reduced to a single trope: the hyperactive percussion on “Open Book” distracts from a sensual string arrangement, and the jazz flute on both “No Time Soon” and “Neighbors” seems a little too hipster for its own good.
Needless to say, it’s easier to call a bluff when you see it the second time. Not that Gnarls Barkley is itself a bluff, but I wouldn’t be wrong to say that the duo — who only performs in choreographed costume and only came together for an album because of the success of “Crazy” — is at very least an act. Now played out across two albums, their signature juxtaposition wears on even the most devout listener: like on “Crazy” and Odd Couple closer “A Little Better,” the verses are catchier than the choruses; the production is at once repetitive and unexpected; and you’re left with the nagging feeling that this DJ’s more comfortable orchestrating and this rapper would rather sing soul. I just can’t wait until these two record something that plays like an album, and not — to stick with their well-established TV metaphor — like a recorded psychotic episode.