Part of St. Elsewhere's appeal was that it was so surprising. When the duo's single, "Crazy," debuted, critics hailed it as "forwarding-thinking" and "surreal," and the fans seemed to agree: in the United Kingdom, the song remained on the top of the charts for nine weeks, until the band decided to remove the single from stores so that people would not get sick of it.
Unfortunately, The Odd Couple just doesn't have the gripping "newness" that made St. Elsewhere so compelling. That doesn't mean it's a bad album; on the contrary, The Odd Couple is a soulful, slower-paced follow-up to the scattered, off-the-meds adventurism that infused St. Elsewhere. The Odd Couple has the same blend of hip-hop beats and '60s soul that St. Elsewhere was built on, but that's where the similarities end. Some of the strongest tracks on the album, "Going On," "Surprise" and "Who's Gonna Save My Soul" are focused on a more restrained, gospel sound, right down to the organ accompaniment, hand-claps and church-choir back-up vocals.
But what defines The Odd Couple is not its dabbling in gospel influences -- it's the all-out somberness of most of the tracks. Sure, St. Elsewhere has its share of darker songs (see the track "Necromancing" if you don't believe me), but it didn't have the level of lyrical introspection that pervades The Odd Couple. On the closing track, "A Little Better," Cee-Lo sings, "It's probably plain to see / That I got a whole lot of pain in me / And it will always remain in me." Even the album's first single "Run (I'm a Natural Disaster)" is moody and self-conscious, despite its frenetic hip-hop beats. On that track, Cee-Lo states, "All I'm saying is that sometimes I'm more scared of myself." He concludes that thought later in the song when he sings, "Hurry little children, run this way / I have got a beast at bay."
All that murky melancholia doesn't make for chart-topping singles, but I think this album has the potential to be a grower. Sure, it doesn't have the flash-in-the-pan appeal of St. Elsewhere, primarily because we're already familiar with Cee-Lo and Danger Mouse's odd eclecticism, but when you listen to the albums back-to-back, it's clear that the duo has made a lot of progress lyrically, and a lot of refinement musically.
Make no mistake, The Odd Couple is a solid record, but what excites me the most about the sophomore album is that it stands as a clear sign that Gnarls Barkley is moving quickly to musical maturity. And what a soulful and audacious maturity that will be.