St. Elsewhere – Gnarls Barkley

The Funkiest Way To Be Depressed

by Iryna Byelyayeva

Personally, I’m not a fan of depressive music. I acknowledge that music, which inspires sadness is necessary—we feel everything through music and can find solace even in precisely the thing that will grandise our melancholy. But personally, I don’t like it. I use music to uplift, to make myself feel better, to make my day seem more important. It’s why I run a Facebook page where I post a happy song every day. I’m a positivity cliché.

But then, every couple of months, I get sad and need music to relate to (as opposed to quell). Gnarls Barkley’s 2006 St. Elsewhere is as close to depressive music as I can get. It’s the funkiest way to be depressed. The first couple of times I’d listened to it I didn’t pay attention to the lyrics, just the beat. It was precisely listening to it on a day when everything was turning to shit (first day of your period, ammirite everyone?) that unlocked a whole new layer of this album.

St. Elsewhere starts with a party—‘Go-Go Gadget Gospel’ is a wonderfully upbeat song. But it’s the feeling of excitement you get once five, thumping drumbeats bring you into ‘Crazy’ that really hooks you. ‘Crazy’ is just as good as when it first came out, hypnotising both our child selves and our cats with its enigmatic film clip. What’s newer to me about it is how nasty it actually is. The lyrics and CeeLo Green’s performance are unkind, both to himself and the listener. With the opening lines ‘I remember when I lost my mind/ there was something so crazy about that day …’ we’re lulled into thinking this song is going to be just an anecdote. Soon the focus is turned on the listener, Green’s voice becomes just a touch more unhinged. ‘And I hope that you are having the time of your life/ but think twice/ that’s my only advice’ is ominous. In the next moment Green is barking and laughing at us, before he sings out the chorus one more time—louder this time, giving us the impression that it’s not about him anymore. A close listening to this song makes one feel uncomfortable, like we really are in the presence of someone who is struggling with their reality. And the album only gets better from here.

‘St. Elsewhere’ is a soulful, hip hop track about leaving your life behind. ‘Smiley Faces’ is a Motown-esque song about trying to smile no matter what, oh and taking ‘a little pain just in case’. ‘Who Cares’ is a more laid back, half-spoken discussion of accepting that you’re ‘a little complicated’. It’s almost with a shrug that Green sings ‘everybody is somebody/but no one want to be themselves/and if I ever wanted to ever understand me/I’d have to talk to someone else’.

But the real peak nihilism comes out in ‘Just A Thought’, which is also the best song on the album besides ‘Crazy’. ‘Why is this my life/ is almost everybody’s question.’ Green sort of yells out the lyrics to this song but, unlike ‘Crazy’, there is a gentleness in his voice. It’s the wonderful pairing of acoustic guitar with rusty, electric drums which interlude the lyrics—they perfectly express the feeling of ‘I feel shit, oh well, I guess it happens.’ ‘And I’ve tried,’ Green explains, ‘everything but suicide/ but it’s cross my mind … just a thought.’ It doesn’t glamourise or condemn, it’s just a thought and it’s there.

This album oscillated between challenging you and your feelings of self-worth (‘who do you think you are/ ha ha ha/ bless your soul’), laughing at our commercialised positivity (‘and you’re welcome to stay/ but even your company must complement/ The Feng Shui) and resigned understand of humanity (‘but essentially I’m an animal/ so just what do I do with all this aggression?’). The perfect mix of Green’s performative singing and Danger Mouse’s arrangements makes this the one of the only album I could lose myself in when I’m feeling low.

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