The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Thursday, April 27, 2006
GNARLS BARKLEY

The sentient critic always has to be wary of hyperbole, but the hindsight of tomorrow sometimes has to be measured against the passions of the day whose parameters are set by one’s experience of the past. What I am confident in saying now is that “Crazy” is one of the greatest of number one singles; what I am slightly less confident in whispering is that it just might be the greatest. Why?

Above all else, because of the sheer confidence with which the record unites past and future sounds with intemperate current emotions. That plunked bass – itself reshaped from the bassline Danger Mouse provided for Gorillaz’ “Kids With Guns” – was ubiquitous in the pop of ‘67-8; set against a 1975 flat disco drumbeat, a mocking (self or us? Both?) but passionate pop-soul vocal which could have belonged to 1964 or 1987, a hint of 1994 Massive Attack neurostrings, the underlying “Ghost Town” dread of 1981 and a central sentiment which is unmistakably 2006; namely, the adherence to “normality” in a world which is clearly sinking into madness. Is it better to sink blissfully in mad oblivion, or use that same madness to tower above the drowning? Cee-Lo Green’s vocal, which could be Engelbert (“And I hope that you are having the time of your life”) or Terence Trent D’Arby (“Ha ha ha! Bless your soul!”), could suggest either option. The lack of fuss and total focus of purpose and intent with which he begins the song, with little warning (just four tolling plucked bass notes), is shocking in a 2006 where pop is expected to take its time to warm up for its supposed Grand Passion (“Ladies and gentlemen, Mr Shayne Ward!”). Green sings like a man who knows he hasn’t got much time left to deliver his message, either because the world is about to end or because he knows he’s just about to tip over into madness. So the urgency of the labial repetitions (“I remember when, I remember I remember,” “Come on now, who do you, whodoyou whodoyouwhodoyou?”) entrances the listener immediately – how long has it been since such instant intensity could be found in a pop vocal? You are compelled to try to keep up with his flow of thought. He welcomes madness as a release (“There was something so pleasant about that place/Even your emotions had an echo…And so much space”); as Milligan used to say, his ambition was to be an idiot, free of taxes, free of responsibilities, to be left alone to sit with his feet in a bowl of custard for an hour if necessary.

But “Crazy” could also act as an incitement to rise out of the mud in a different way, as the song once again switches to a major key for “My heroes had the heart to lose their lives out on the limb/All I remember is thinking I want to be like them.” To die trying being preferable to “existing.” And one has to remember that that sentiment could apply just as validly to the suicide bomber as to the Everest climber, or rapper. However, the craziness is welcomed more and more fervently with every chorus; note Green’s steady falsetto “possibly” on the first chorus, his shakier “just like me” on the second, and the final, triumphant (?) “Probably.” If that’s all there is, my friend, then let’s keep dancing. And then it simply ends, like a diary or blog entry, without fuss or setpiece, when the story has been told, the emotion emptied. End of bulletin, think twice (as opposed to the “don’t think twice” of “Sugar Baby Love”) but don’t let it pass you by. And on Top Of The Pops Green, dressed in full naval uniform, and accompanied by full choir and string section, turned it into a shattering staccato epic of a ballad, a threnody Gene Pitney should have lived to sing (listen to “I’m Gonna Be Strong” again, then tell me otherwise) or indeed Billy MacKenzie; and then you think that in the most important way “Crazy” joins all the dots needed from Johnnie Ray to UNKLE…and those are a lot of dots.

Inevitably, the album St Elsewhere doesn’t really live up to the implacable greatness of “Crazy,” but neither is it 2006’s World Clique – one unarguable classic plus a support act of “interesting” tracks which you appreciate but know you will never listen to again. What it resembles much more is the Anticon/Dif Jux ethos gone pop – the quantum leap which the Mike Ladds, Sage Francises and Cannibal Oxen of this world have never quite achieved (with the partial exception of Ladd in his Majesticons guise) – an ostensibly sunny and daffy album which on closer examination turns out to be a tortured diatribe against a world in which the singer clearly feels uncomfortable and sore. Sometimes Danger Mouse sets up 78 rpm Warp/Rephlex-type drum n’ bass gone mentalist rhythms, superimposing what sometimes sounds like dodgy ‘80s cop show themes (“Transformer,” the opening “Go-Go Gadget Gospel”); at other times he slows down to Wagon Christ/Earthling 1995 tripping hopping pace, with variable results; “Who Cares” is a quite marvellous restaging of 1970 Temptations in a Ninja Tune flotation tank, with Green’s Beckett-like pleas of “I could go on and on and on” answered by the baleful bass voice “Who cares?,” but despite a promising intro of Oliver Reed flutes and forgotten (Cowsills?) bubblegum vocals, “Online” (which is about cocaine, not computers) degenerates into a 2001 Fun Lovin’ Criminals B-side. When Green raps, the Mouse background becomes more generic (the jet set/Cibo Matto strings behind “Feng Shui”). There are a couple of workaday nu-soul workouts in the title track and “Storm Coming” which are moderately engaging, although Jamie Lidell trod the same territory rather more subtly on last year’s Multiply. Meanwhile, the slapstick horror of “The Boogie Monster” and “Necromancer” is merely silly and belongs on a mid-‘80s Screamin’ Jay Hawkins album.

Overall the feeling is of a stall-setting-out grab-bag; there is some resonance with early Was (Not Was), if only because Green’s voice sounds at times uncannily like Harry Bowens’. The cover of the Violent Femmes’ venerable “Gone Daddy Gone” is played surprisingly straight, though as with “Begin The Beguine” the song is such an intrinsically good one that it seems impossible to do a bad version. Sometimes the best results come out when they try less ostensibly hard; thus the closing “The Last Time” is a straightforward and wonderfully-curved dance-funk anthem, coming on like Engelbert with the 1973 Isley Brothers, and its (yet again) affirmation on the side of life (“Dance with me darling/Step with me sweetheart/The world is watching” – oooh, yessss….) is completely welcome.

There are some darker and profounder moments on the record, however. “Just A Thought” is Green’s epic meditation on suicide, and his straight gospel vocal in the midst of disorientating electronics groans and bangs, set against Morricone-esque Spanish guitars and tolling bells, suggests the world’s last sane man, marooned in the middle of a block of crack houses, struggling to hold onto his sanity as the world palpably cracks around him. His closing signoff “But I’m fine” is not exactly convincing. And perhaps the other truly sublime moment on St Elsewhere comes with the fabulous “Smiley Faces” (probably the record’s only other potential hit single) which sets Green’s powerhouse voice against a hustling Motown beat which in turn is progressively dislocated by electronic whooshes and slides, and dazed-sounding backing vocals, all underlined by a stately organ and a gorgeous set of chord changes – the Four Tops produced by Thomas Leer and remixed by the Flying Lizards with Ivor Cutler in the background playing the Castaways’ “Liar Liar.” But “Crazy” remains Gnarls Barkley’s one undentable masterpiece thus far; its ambiguous, tortuous and cunning aura sets a new standard for 21st century pop which one hopes will be expanded upon and made even yellower by astute pop operatives to come – even though it could legitimately stand as the world’s last pop record. And then I see you smiling and remember that there is no end.


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