Listening to CeeLo Green’s new album, “CeeLo Green Is … Thomas Callaway,” is like getting into a time machine and heading to 1968 — not the ’68 of Motown or Stax but that of Elvis, Glen Campbell, Johnny Cash and Dusty Springfield. That’s because the album was recorded in Nashville at Dan Auerbach’s Easy Eye studios with a slew of legendary co-writers and musicians (Bobby Wood, Dave Roe, Paul Overstreet), and with orchestration, to create an impeccable collection of controlled and emotional songs. This is the “Crazy” man as we haven’t heard him before: in a meditative mood, crooning rather than riffing … reflective, not rapturous.
His sixth solo album detours from benchmark sounds like the pure pop of the Pussycat Dolls’ “Don’t Cha” (the 2005 hit he co-wrote and produced), the ’60s soul of “Forget You” and the monumental, haunting electronica/hip-hop of Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy.” While it’s easy to label this album country-soul — that would imply Bobby Womack and Al Green — think more the former: not the twangy stuff of pickup trucks, blondes and bars but more credibly of men wrestling with their emotions, demons and dreams. It’s redemption music set against a sweeping backdrop of strings, electric piano, Hammond B3, guitars and clavinet.
And it works because the songs are really good, with fireworks resulting when Green as wordsmith and melody man is paired with Auerbach and some of Nashville’s best writers. On top of that, he possesses chameleonic vocal ability, sliding up and down registers with ease for the warm and melancholy “Do It All,” the plaintive “Slow Down” or the rousing second single, “Doing It Altogether.” The foreboding “The Way” has an emotive, filmic feel, as does the soaring “Down With the Sun.”
Green sets delightful melodic trapdoors, as in how the playful verse of “Lead Me” erupts into a gospel-infused chorus. Soul takes a mostly supporting role on the album but comes to the fore on “Thinking Out Loud” — so convincingly Stylistics/Delfonics sounding, it’s hard to believe it’s not a cover.
It makes sense, given that Auerbach’s initial strategy in working with Green was a little deceptive. The writing and recording sessions were presented to Green with the intention of writing songs for other artists. Thus the Atlanta-based rapper-singer, freed from self-analysis and overthinking, Method-acted his songwriting to match the music. When this liberating approach produced the results Auerbach envisioned, he then suggested Green use the material himself.
A few years ago a Black artist — even one as genre-defying as Green — delivering an album of classic “Wichita Lineman”-like material might have seemed startling. But this isn’t the first time Auerbach has enabled that kind of result; his collaboration last year with the British singer Yola offered thrilling dividends and generated a best new artist Grammy nomination and impending stardom for the performer. Green, who already comes bearing name value, is even better positioned to prove that these days, people have far more on their minds than who sings what. Great music, sung from the soul for the soul, may just be the salve they want.