By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
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.”
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.”