The vocalist who turned Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” into an anthem of the 21st century returns with his third solo album, and the first in six years, “The Lady Killer.” Cee Lo Green, born Thomas Callaway in Atlanta, has built a justified reputation as a roly-poly misfit with a magnificent voice that wouldn’t have sounded out of place in ‘60s Motown or a Baptist church service. His combo of retro-soul classicism and dark-tinged eccentricity jelled on the viral hit “F— You” last summer, a song that induced gasps, chuckles, frantic dancing and a William Shatner cover.
Cee Lo pursues his sounds with in “The Lady Killer,” an album loosely organized around themes of passion, obsession and revenge. Green is best when he uses his love of classic soul, TV theme songs and new wave as a cover for some of his weirder obsessions. The “Lady Killer Theme” sets the stage by introducing Green’s latest character — part playboy, part assassin — backed by reverb-soaked spy-movie guitars that could’ve been hijacked from a John Barry soundtrack. Shotgun blasts introduce “Love Gun,” a duel as much as a duet with Lauren Bennett. And “Bodies” is downright disturbing; it’s a murderous nightmare brimming with clipped beats, chilling strings and erotic whispers.
The rest isn’t quite as provocative, but rather more of a melodic tribute to Green’s era-spanning musical tastes. But who’s complaining? A “Billie Jean”-style bass line struts beneath bold strings and blasting synthesizers on “Bright Lights Bigger City.” “Satisfied” sounds like a great lost Prince track from the ‘80s with its layered falsetto voices. “Old Fashioned” updates the orchestrated pop-soul of the Drifters. Even with his quirks dialed down, Green has a voice that can bust any melody wide open.
In the words of the man himself, “Emotion is something that you don’t simply receive. Emotion is compelled. Other than that we’re just shells.”