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The Gospel According to Cee-Lo 

The poet of Gnarls Barkley reveals the broken-but-beating heart of an unlikely hit

Wednesday, Jan 24 2007
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St. John of the Cross, a 16th-century Spanish mystic, described something called “the dark night of the soul,” that necessary descent on the way to salvation. His visions in the abyss of self-reflection were weird, beautiful and (in hindsight) all the redemption he needed.

Fast-forward to late 2003: Brian Burton — a.k.a. DJ Danger Mouse — suffers through panic attacks while chopping, screwing and mashing the Beatles’ White Album with Jay-Z’s The Black Album. Around the same time, he and Thomas Callaway — a.k.a. Cee-Lo Green — complete “Crazy,” a song of exquisite psychological torment that becomes a global theme song for 2006 (opening gently with the line “I remember when I lost my mind . . .”). Everyone covers it (the Raconteurs to Billy Idol); everyone loves it. Everyone gets it.

And now the duo known as Gnarls Barkley are up for five Grammys (including Record of the Year for “Crazy”), and touring with the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Still, despite Gnarls’ clever marketing tricks and costumes (superheroes, astronauts, scientists), the lyrics to “Crazy” are more familiar to Middle America than the man who wrote them. And the fullness of their debut album, St. Elsewhere, hasn’t gotten quite the reckoning from critics it deserves. Sure, its production has received lots of attention — including a New York Times Magazine profile that all but denied Cee-Lo’s creative contribution. But the emotional life of these songs, the heart of these songs, isn’t widely discussed — which is odd for music so bravely, even uncomfortably, emotional. For all its assumed pop sheen, St. Elsewhere is, lyrically, a painful work — though Cee-Lo himself prefers “melancholy.”

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Even in a brief phone interview from the road, Cee-Lo is eager to discuss those aspects of Gnarls Barkley. He speaks with the immediate eloquence of a poet — and a preacher’s son. Sincere, open, rarely put off by any question, he’s probably got the lowest B.S. factor of any current pop star. You get the feeling you could ask him anything.

“We didn’t talk about music at all, hardly,” Cee-Lo says, with a sense of surprise, of the recording process with Danger Mouse. “A lot of things went without saying — all the struggle and the tension, that controlled chaos was already there in the tracks themselves. I recognized and became humbled by that, and lifted up at the same time. It was a kind of company in a space and an experience that I had endured myself.” The album’s construction was careful: Danger Mouse built tracks from a head-spinning range of soundtrack samples and live grooves, while Cee-Lo sang macabre, introspective lyrics that recalled Sly Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On. “I had a chance to see something very present about Danger Mouse through his production that empowered me to be as present as I was lyrically,” he says, impassioned. “It was a conversation between us. We were just trying to impress each other at the time.” His high-on-soul vocals were pushed further by Danger Mouse’s brainy aesthetic; the result is a concept record of psychological disintegration and funk recombination.

“I’ve never met anyone quite like Danger Mouse,” Cee-Lo continues. “He is a walking iPod of music. At the same time, he’s a very regular guy. People wonder, how could a regular guy write ‘Crazy’? You’d think that would fall out of the sky. Danger Mouse is a very meat-and-potatoes guy, very intense, very meticulous. I need that. He’s the picket fence around my garden of wildflowers.”

Danger Mouse’s slash & crash approach to grooves coalesces fully on “Crazy,” turning tension into catharsis. “There was something so pleasant about that place,” Cee-Lo sings with a raspy ease. “Even your emotions had an echo in so much space.” The song doesn’t chill or thrill because it’s paranoid, but because it makes paranoia sound beautiful.

“You wouldn’t be able to see yourself in it if [the song] was completely dark,” Cee-Lo explains. “It’s like a starry night. Something dimly lit, moody or melancholy would be more suiting. Completely dark and detached? I disagree. So many people found it relevant, you know what I’m saying? Striking, yes. Honest, yes. The music is symbolic of a truth that we’re in denial of. It becomes even darker when you’re confronted with what you deny in your own life. It represents those thoughts and notions that we have to ignore so that we’re not bound by them.”

St. Elsewhere is bound by very little, embracing suicidal confessions and munchkin voices whispering in the shadows; moving from medleys of Willie Dixon and the Violent Femmes to the Wham! bounce and Galaga gaming whirs of the album’s second single, “Smiley Faces.”

Cee-Lo readily acknowledges the ’80s vibe, but is careful to clarify its motivations: “We didn’t do it consciously — and not to imitate, but to revel in the same spirit. A lot of my private and unspoken inspiration is that era in music, which was colorblind, unbiased. It received and embraced everyone. The Eurythmics and Culture Club, the Talking Heads and Duran Duran. We all knew these records. We aspired to music of such broadness and diversity.”

Cee-Lo has long demonstrated an intuitive feel for reworking gospel, both in sound and in vision. (He was a co-founder of the Atlanta rap crew Goodie Mob, has released two neo-soul solo albums, and also collaborated on the Southern rap project known as the Dungeon Family.) But with Gnarls Barkley, that talent for gospel reinvention is pushed as far as possible, even over chaotic pastiches such as “Storm Coming.” And without ever invoking them directly, St. Elsewhere is an homage to Cee-Lo’s deceased parents (both of whom were ministers in Atlanta), and to his own enduring pain over losing them in his youth.

“It’s definitely a blood type, an inheritance,” he says of his roots. “Gospel is synonymous with praise. I’m humble before my maker when I sing. I’m praising him not due to what the song is about, but in the motivation, somewhere in my mind — the memory of some pain, something tragic or traumatic, like when I lost my mother . . .” He trails off for a moment. “It may not be in the actual song, but it’s always there in the way I am grounded and in what has driven me to art.

“This is probably my most honest work,” he admits. “Prior to this record, I’ve heard comments that I am almost too good to be true. I’m always optimistic, I hardly ever have anything negative to say. I’ve always tried to be encouraging, and I’m very appreciative and grateful. Music spared me. But spared me from what? That’s where Gnarls Barkley comes in. No, I’m not too good to be true, I’m very human. This record opened me up and allowed me to continue to do what I want to do, which is to speak on behalf of people. But not from an elevated platform, but to speak for the people, by the people, right there within the people.”

The greatest strength of St. Elsewhere lies in its inversion of one of hip-hop’s greatest strengths: Its lyrics barely recognize the world of current popular culture, instead tunneling deeply inside private experience. Even Danger Mouse’s samples are largely so obscure that his constructions — while ’80s-sounding in lots of ways — are ultimately hermetic and dense, rather than popular in the way we think of most pop music. It’s a scrambled dystopia of funk and brittle rock. You will find a glimmer of spiritual salvation at the end of the St. Elsewhere journey, but only after facing your own truths — even if that means admitting, as Cee-Lo does on “Just a Thought,” that sometimes he’d rather check out once and for all.

“ ‘Just a Thought’ is exactly what it is,” he says. “You cannot be held in contempt for something that crosses your mind. I’m alive and well, and here to testify that I myself have been that person, have been up against that wall. But obviously I’m here; I have endured and overcome.

“I don’t want people to misconstrue it as present-day for me. The album is very introspective, I’ve experienced it here and there. There’s a lifetime of experience there. But we’re still trying to entertain you. I was surprised that my most personal writing was as entertaining as it was.

“So the record is triumphant,” he concludes. “There’s a silver lining to all of it. Even the last line of that song is ‘I’m fine.’ ”

Gnarls Barkley will perform at the 49th Grammy Awards, Sun., Feb. 11 (broadcast at 8 p.m. on CBS). They’ll also perform Feb. 14 at the Fusion 2007 festival in Las Vegas, with Kanye West, Lupe Fiasco, Spank Rock and others.

Reach the writer at rfkasten@swbell.net

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