Cee Lo Green has generated a parade of sinister rave-ups by channeling his own darkest self into a special brand of soulful hip-pop. On his bespangled Christmas album, Cee Lo's Magic Moment, the manic soulman accesses his better angels without losing the hard groove or the über-weirdness that is, for some, his defining characteristic. Just glance at the album cover: A fur-clad Cee Lo sits shotgun as a reindeer pilots a bright-red Rolls-Royce drawn by three white stallions apparently galloping through a sparkly, purple cosmos. The thing looks like a young girl's Trapper Keeper from the '90s, and the album itself is likewise kid-friendly in the extreme, with good-natured appearances from the Muppets and current a cappella darlings Straight No Chaser. On Gnarls Barkley's St. Elsewhere, Cee Lo spun wicked necrophiliac fantasies. Here, he's more about "Candles burnin' low/Lots of mistletoe," "Choirs singin' carols right outside my door," and so on. Fear not: We'll soon be treated to new renditions of the familiar id, with a non-seasonal Cee Lo album scheduled for early near year. In the meantime, the dark songster offers a bright disc full of pudding-rich arrangements and a number of worthy soul hits—just with a little more twinkly tambourine.
While Cee Lo roasts the obligatory chestnuts ("The Christmas Song") and offers a hardly necessary reinterpretation of "White Christmas," the high points here are the uptempo, Impressions-style R&B takes: not just "What Christmas Means to Me," originally a Motown concoction by Anna Gordy Gaye, and Donny Hathaway's "This Christmas," but also "Please Come Home for Christmas" and a winsome "Baby, It's Cold Outside," on which Christina Aguilera expostulates on the impropriety of staying at Cee Lo's pad while the would-be seducer keeps his game low-key, alternately tremulous and conversational, until heavy horn hits announce a Duke Ellington-style big-band climax and the two Voice judges bust loose in ebullient fashion. Without flaunting his influences, Cee Lo pays his dues throughout: Now and again he channels Al Green or, in certain wordless bits, Otis Redding, and even a bit of Aretha Franklin on "Run Rudolph Run," an organ-led, bluesy liftoff from the Johnny Marks original. If his "All I Want for Christmas" is merely good and not Mariah Carey-spectacular, his lissome imitation of Joni Mitchell on "River" nails a sweet spot between emotional reticence and mournful observation of the season's festivities.
"All I Need Is Love," a call-and-response with the Muppets, and "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch," a collaboration with Straight No Chaser, are pleasant novelties, but a duet with Rod Stewart on "Merry Christmas, Baby," which also appears on Stewart's album of the same name, is sure to pack the dance floor at even the stodgiest office holiday party. Were all of this a signal of some new, softer direction in Cee Lo's progression as an artist, it'd be worrisome indeed. Instead, it's a reassuring testament to his range, his sense of fun, even his mental health. Let's just hope he remembers how to play Scrooge when that's what we once more require of him.