Gnarls Barkley

St. Elsewhere

(Downtown; 2006)

By Craig Eley | 17 August 2007

In the 1950s, CBS began broadcasting The Wizard of Oz every year around Thanksgiving. The event became for many a family ritual in the pre-VCR era, and further helped cement Oz as “the most beloved motion picture of all time” (or whatever). But here’s the kicker: at the time, televisions were in black and white. For the people growing up then (already two generations removed from the once-popular book series), their first experiences with Oz didn’t capture the Technicolor glory of the place “somewhere over the rainbow.” Dorothy opened the door and walked from one black and white world into another.

But the movie’s fantasy dichotomy worked so well that it didn’t matter. It latched onto a metaphor so universal that it was, is, and will continue to be applied to, well, everything: politics, economics, psychology, religion, homosexuality, and so on, forever and ever and ever. This overabundance of interpretations renders such interpretations meaningless, leaving us with only the metaphor itself: escape and return. In this regard, the people watching in the ‘50s had an easier time getting the point. For me, the film’s problem isn’t in the departure but in the necessity of coming back: “there’s no place like home.” Oz is, after all, a vehemently conservative film; it demands a return to the status quo, and that idea has never sat well with me. John Waters says that he never understood why Dorothy didn’t just stay in Oz. I agree with you, John. And I don’t care if Dorothy brought the lessons of Oz home inside her heart, or whatever, she still went back to the same old life on the same old farm. The message to kids shouldn’t be to love Kansas more, it should be to live a life that more closely resembles their fantasies.

Gnarls Barkley get this. Their debut album is a pop dream, a soul fantasy, a musical Oz. This message isn’t lost on them — they showed up at Coachella dressed like the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion. But this whole thing wasn’t just a big set-up or a coincidence. They have used public appearances and photo shoots to represent a host of film characters: Cheech and Chong, Napoleon Dynamite, the dudes from A Clockwork Orange. Even the name is a joke, which makes the whole thing one big gag, right? Wrong. Gnarls Barkley understands fantasy and has created a near-perfect escape from modern life. It is often silly, occasionally ridiculous, always catchy as hell, and as loose as an album with this kind of production credit can be. What more could we ask from a pop record?

Gnarls tell us what is about to happen right at the beginning — I mean the very beginning. Opener “Go Go Gadget Gospel” begins with the sound of turning on a film projector. Significantly, “The Last Time” ends with the sound of turning one off. Even the title is a reference to visual culture. At this point, does it even make sense to pigeonhole Danger Mouse as a hip-hop producer? After last year’s Demon Days, and the love-it or hate-it Mouse and the Mask, Danger Mouse has become nothing if not a producer of fantasy soundtracks.

But this is no shiny, PG-rated, celluloid masterpiece; the record has dark themes and material from the bottom of the trash can. This cartoon is equal parts Disney and hentai, Miyazaki and Bakshi. The album’s title explains some of this, which I see through Danger Mouse’s pedigree: television and hip-hop. Honestly, my first thought when I heard the title wasn’t an 80’s medical television drama, but Tribe’s Midnight Marauders (quoth Phife: “take that garbage to St. Elsewhere”). This record is a collection of junk, literally: single-take vocal tracks, discarded records, and themes that people just don’t talk openly about, like suicide and corpse-fucking. Yeah.

But it also has kitsch to spare. Take “The Boogie Monster,” an unabashed novelty song which harkens back to spooky ’50s greats, especially “Monster Mash” and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You.” It’s cheesy, sure, but it’s also indicative of the album’s self-reflexivity (“I realized the monster was me”) and the album’s downright silliness (“the only thing that could bring me back alive, woman / is some good, good head”). To take it overly-over-the-top, Cee-Lo ends with a Vincent Price-esqe laugh. “Gone Daddy Gone” is delivered with fun-house-mirror accuracy, a bizarro reflection of a song we know quite well.

Of course, “Crazy” is the standout track here, a neo-soul song that actually has soul, and the frontrunner for single of the year. The sample and background vocals work seamlessly with Cee-lo’s vocal performance, which sounds like it came from DM’s sample pile, too, harkening back to greats like TP or Donny Hathaway. The lyrics further the album’s thematics: “I remember when I lost my mind.” Yet Gnarls never stop playing the role of the manipulator. Even in their avowed lunacy they still have the power to understand and judge the listener, reflected in the album’s second-person narrated bridge: “You really think you’re in control?” The song is short but sweet, a goddamn musical Challenger disasterpiece: fires up, gets going, and explodes before our waiting, horrified eyes.

The album closes with “The Last Time,” which drives along with a Prince-esque guitar sample, Sly backround singers and tambourine and hand-claps to spare. In a chorus-line grand finale, Cee-Lo asks, dripping with salty irony, “When was the last time you danced?” Meanwhile, over the last 40 minutes, the album has whipped things up into a frenzied tornado, and Uncle Henry and Auntie Em are fucking in the storm cellar. But as things wind to a close, there is that projector sound again. As the projector stops and our armchair odyssey ends, Danger Mouse and Cee-Lo leave us, awestruck and grateful and thinking the same thing: take me back to Oz.