Will Gnarls Barkley Dodge The Sophomore Slump? (Possibly…Not.)

craaazyyy.jpgThe issue of Billboard currently on newsstands features Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton and Cee-Lo, a.k.a. Gnarls Barkley, on the cover–in a surprisingly non-movie-related getup of long johns and colored lights. (Maybe it’s an homage to National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation?) Inside, correspondent Todd Martens leads off the magazine’s holiday album preview with an interview in which the gnarly duo talks about the follow-up to last year’s chart-and-critic-approved St. Elsewhere. Burton gives the writer a listen to a mysterious, unnamed new song, which Martens describes as “an even deeper slice of soul than anything from St. Elsewhere [with] the most forceful vocal performance Cee-Lo has ever given.” But for all the upbeat chitchat, Burton already sounds–shocker!–like he’s cracking a little under the typical second-record pressure.

Can you blame him? St. Elsewhere gave Atlantic Records a surprise, much-appreciated earnings pop last summer, and as Billboard points out, the industry has an even deeper hole to dig itself out of this year (first-half 2007 record sales are down 15% year-on-year). Burton, of course, makes the case that the label isn’t pressuring them to deliver a rehash of the first album, and the label execs are quoted saying they give Burton free reign to express himself as he sees fit. But then, there’s the crazy elephant in the room–the little matter of following up That Song:

Without “Crazy,” Burton says St. Elsewhere would have been little more than “an indie, underground record that didn’t do very well.” But with “Crazy,” it has sold 1.3 million units in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan. And now, despite the deadlines from Atlantic, as well as the label’s decision to present Gnarls Barkley as one of its blockbuster, holiday-timed releases, Burton appears out to prove that Gnarls Barkley was not then, and never will be, a singles act. He stresses his dislike for the Internet and doesn’t want a song to overshadow the new album, which has a name he declines–of course–to give.

“No song is ever done until we have all the material together,” he says. “When we have enough songs to the point where we have an album’s worth, then we’ll go in and start finishing them together, so they have a cohesiveness to them, and we know where they fit with each other. Some of the songs may be exactly the same, and some may end up being very different. That [new song] feels good, so I played it, and I had to offer some sort of proof that there is another record.”

Sure, there’ll be another record, but let’s face it: Burton has a near-impossible task ahead of himself–following up what will go down as one of the two or three greatest pop songs of the decade (one that garnered much love from a lot of those infernal Internet kids). “Crazy” was not just a pop happening but a post-iTunes phenomenon, and unless he’s planning to produce something seriously soccer-mom-and-hip-dad-friendly, he’ll have a hard time getting another 1.3 million people to buy the plastic-and-aluminum version of Gnarls Barkley v2.0.

Crazy Train: Gnarls Barkley [Billboard]