I have a hard time perceiving St. Elsewhere by Gnarls Barkley as anything but an indie rock album.
Yes, Danger Mouse comes from the hip-hop underground, and Cee-Lo was a member of Goodie Mob. By virtue of those credentials, St. Elsewhere is a hip-hop album.
But there’s a level of psychological exploration happening in the lyrics that go far beyond the few hip-hop albums I’ve encountered in my largely rockist life.
"Just a Thought" exemplifies this introspection. Cee-Lo chillingly sings, "And I’ve tried everything but suicide, but it’s crossed my mind." That’s a kind of plain-spoken confessional I wouldn’t encounter on a Missy Elliott album.
The chart-topping single from the album — "Crazy" — is a paean to being unhinged. "Who do you think you are?" Cee-Lo asks. "Haha, bless your soul. You think you’re in control."
Even a track as novel as "The Boogie Monster" has a dark subtext. Despite the B-movie organ and the "Monster Mash" guitar twang, the realization Cee-Lo reaches about himself is a brilliant flash of insight. I may have even read it a Murakami Haruki short story.
But St. Elsewhere is also a party record, and Cee-Lo immediately lightens up "The Boogie Monster" with a clincher of an ender: "The only thing that will help me, woman, is some good, good head." Yeah, that would make him a "Booty Monster" instead.
Musically, St. Elsewhere inhabits a sonic palette far removed from the overcompressed gloss of mainstream hip-hop. (Which makes the success of the album a nice but odd justice.) Danger Mouse does an excellent job recasting classic soul in a futuristic environment. "Smiley Faces" has one foot planted in the Supremes and another foot located God knows where.
Cee-Lo’s raspy voice only serves to reinforce this past-future duality. His singing is raw and soulful, his technique unpolished and his delivery emotional. It could perhaps be described as a classic soul voice.
From where, then, does this indie rock perception come?
It doesn’t help that the duo covers the Violent Femme’s "Gone Daddy Gone".
No, the perception comes from the little things — the 37-minute length of the album, a lack of interconnecting skits (a requisite for any hip-hop album), a conciseness more akin to punk rock than hip-hop.
Gnarls Barkley gets down to business. They’re freaked out enough as it is — they don’t need to overplay it, nor do they. And that brevity is the wit of their soul.
But beyond the futuristic R&B and psychological introspection, St. Elsewhere is just damn entertaining. Danger Mouse and Cee-Lo are a dynamic duo, that unexpected pairing that doesn’t sound like it would work but ultimately does.
Gnarls Barkley may sound like indie rock to me, but hey — they got me to listen, right?