Thomas Callaway, better known as CeeLo Green, is likely best remembered for radio singles such as “F— You” and “Crazy.” His new album, CeeLo Green Is Thomas Callaway, takes the tone he’s best known for and softens its edges. On this album, Green walks a line between the poppy, driven music he’s known for and a more natural sound, as he deals with a live band and a more soulful R&B energy, reminiscent of Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder with a country twist.
“Slow Down,” a John Anderson cover, perfectly toes this line. The instrumentation is tempered, but has a lively tinge to it, most prominent in the song’s electric and acoustic guitar solos. Green’s vocals fit comfortably into this instrumentation, and the song’s message is simple but clear.
The message of CeeLo Green Is Thomas Callaway as a whole, however, is scattered. In fact, the song-to-song flow of the album is rooted solely in genre consistency; Green sticks to the naturalism in the album’s rhythm, rather than pushing for consistent lyrical meaning. The closest Green comes to a unified message is in songs such as “Little Mama” and “Don’t Lie.” The former employs a Wurlitzer and organ supported by a lush percussive instrumentation to craft a sweet, funky daughter’s ballad. The latter deals with fatherhood as well, a sort of instructional guide for the do’s and don’ts of parenting.
“Don’t Lie,” however, is also part of the album’s conflicting messaging. While bells and choir are clearly present, other voices are noticeably quieter than Green’s, almost to telegraph, along with the album’s title itself, that this is his show. “People Watching,” meanwhile, wants to emphasize the importance of every individual’s story, focusing on the quotidian events of a small community. Despite this, Green’s lyrics seem to shy away from the overly personal, a huge misstep in an album that provides ample opportunity for personality.
“For You” offers a charming combination of bass and guitar, and Green’s voice has a resonant emotion within it, low and avoiding his typical falsetto. It screams that this is a new type of album for the singer, but is lyrically void of the raw emotional power Green would need to provide.
Green’s vocal performances occupy a specific range, but within that range, he can either work with or against the instrumentation. On “People Watching,” his energetic vocals are close to explosive, and pair excellently with the bright bass and horns. But on “Doing It All Together,” he sounds out of step with the punchy guitar and piano, failing to take the vocals in a particularly interesting direction.
Like Green’s vocals, CeeLo Green Is Thomas Callaway is a mixed bag. Some songs are individually great, but the forgettable tracks on the album are truly without flavor, such as the middling dynamics of “You Gotta Do It All,” a song that appears and disappears without notice. More than a few songs have this problem internally — the eager choir and piano of the chorus of “Lead Me” are truly groovy, while the snapping percussion of the verse provides only an uninteresting compliment.
And yet, there is a taste of greatness here. The ethereal, warbling guitar and endearing, yearning vocal performance of “Thinking Out Loud” is abruptly cut off without warning to start the ghostly sounds of “The Way.” On this track, Green steps into a totally new soundscape. The organ is threatening, and the acoustic guitar, chiming bells, deep horns and operatic vocal approach create an eerie atmosphere as Green sings about the end of civilization. “The Way” is pure whiplash, a final song that is elevated far above the others on the album.
Perhaps, with “The Way,” Green is attempting to make an Ozymandias-style point about his legacy, tying the album back to its earlier themes of fatherhood. If this is the case, however, it’s not clear enough. “The Way” could have been a great song on a more sophisticated album. Alas, CeeLo Green Is Thomas Callaway doesn’t hone its focus enough to reach the level necessary to accommodate its final track.