Probably less adventurous than it should have been, and it's hard to see any of these tracks causing much of a stir, but the production is smooth, and CeeLo shines throughout.
CeeLo Green is a brand – to separate the man and the artist from his flamboyant public persona and his vintage automobile collection would require nothing less than a feat akin to alchemy –, but his output to date has maintained a consistency of quality unparalleled in the world of contemporary R&B. Five years have passed since his last ‘real’ studio release, and he’s seen fit to pepper that hiatus with everything from appearances in Seth MacFarlane cartoons to a novelty Christmas album. Whilst his niche for retro-sounding soul music draws him down at times into the perilous depths of sameyness and self-parody, he has yet to fall on truly black days; that the voice of Gnarls Barkley should continue to churn out fresh and effervescent material, a decade after ‘Crazy’, is testament to a panache and big-heartedness that never fails to possess everything he touches.
The bubbliness Green projects in his voice enables the tackling of subject matter that would seem mundane, preposterous or even offensive if attempted by any other R&B heavyweight. Don’t go looking for thematic meat in Heart Blanche, because there isn’t any – this is, of course, no concept album, with CeeLo juggling childhood nostalgia and John Belushi quotes in a splendidly inelegant fashion only he can really get away with. Indeed, despite the frivolity of the lyrics, replete as they are with pop culture references and melancholia of the schmooziest order, the result never feels anything but personal. ‘Est. 1980s’ finds our hero at “eight-years-old, watching Solid Gold”, while ‘Robin Williams’, a tribute to guess-who, is CeeLo at his most oddly vulnerable (“I said we don’t know, life reminds me of Robin Williams / We’ve got to laugh the pain away”). The groovy guitar riffery that dominates Heart Blanche is a throwback to James Brown, but there’s modernism aplenty – check out the neo-disco of ‘Tonight’, or the sampling of ‘Sign Of The Times’. ‘CeeLo Green Sings The Blues’ does just about what it says on the tin.
Maybe it is possible for an artist to play too safe, clinging to their old habits and stylistic callings where they should be branching out, and this isn’t the make-or-break smash we were all expecting so much as a tame, perfectly palatable slice of post-soul pie. Heart Blanche is bold, big, epic and occasionally surprising – nothing, then, that we haven’t come to expect of CeeLo, for better or worse. Nobody was counting on another ‘Crazy’, although it’s a little disconcerting that the album lacks a track with the obvious megahit potential of a ‘Smiley Faces’ or ‘Fuck You’; still, the music’s sincerity sets it leagues beyond your average pop record, and, if his ever-distinctive vocals are a reliable point of reference, CeeLo hasn’t aged at all.
Heart Blanche is out now via Atlantic.