Back in 2006, I entered my local record store to find myself some new tunes, and I expected to leave the shop with some new alternative or heavy metal. But the guy behind the counter said “no, you’re buying this,” handing me a copy of Gnarls Barkley’s St. Elsewhere. “You’ll like it,” I was told, almost as if that was a directive, “if you don’t, I’ll give you your money back.” Despite being a little apprehensive at first, I handed over my money and left to head home and listen to my latest acquisition.
I had heard the strong beats and soulful vocals of Crazy and the cover of Violent Femmes’ Gone Daddy Gone on the radio, but other than that I didn’t know what to expect from the record. As the frenetic opening track, Go-Go Gadget Gospel, unspooled before me, I was hooked, knowing that the duo of CeeLo Green (vocals) and Danger Mouse (production) were delivering something special with their début. Across the record, the duo switches between and blends energetic electronic beats and samples with R&B and soul, and the lyrics are playfully nostalgic while being emotionally resonant.
Tracks like Smiley Faces and The Boogie Monster feel light-hearted despite featuring a healthy dose melancholy, which is testament to the duo’s skill at crafting music that is both enjoyable and meaningful. Just a Thought and Who Cares? deal with depression and mental health directly without being heavy-handed or preachy, and these contrast well with the moments when the pair opts to be outlandish and just have some fun, as with Go-Go Gadget Gospel, Feng Shui, and Transformers. Many artists attempt to express or embody this type of versatility, whether musically or lyrically, but on St. Elsewhere Gnarls Barkley make such changes and combinations feel utterly effortless.
For fourteen tracks, from the manic fun of Go-Go Gadget Gospel, to the somber emotion of Just a Thought, to the joyousness of The Last Time – a song with a beat and mood so infectious, that a staunch non-dance such as myself feels inclined to get up and move with the groove – Gnarls Barkley hold the audience in thrall to the music so expertly it’s hard to believe they didn’t become the biggest musical act in the world. Needless to say, I never returned to the record store to get my money back.