How do you define an entity like Gorillaz?
It’s a two-dimensional cartoon band that makes albums whose grasp on pop sensibility is anything but flat – effortlessly three-dimensional. Their live shows mix holograms, animation, and live musicians. The band has four official members – “virtual” musicians Russel, Noodle, 2D and Murdoc – but in reality, a highly eclectic lineup of guest musicians rotates in orbit around one permanent contributor, Blur’s frontman Damon Albarn. The band’s newest single even boasts a music video that blends animated characters (courtesy of artist Jamie Hewlett) with live-action Bruce Willis in a high-speed cop chase.
Despite its contradictions, Gorillaz has grown into a cohesive unit: if not a typical band, it’s proven a third time around that it’s a medium through which talented folk explore the fringes of pop, hip-hop, grunge, funk and everything in between.
Plastic Beach, the third installment in an impressive discography, arrives almost a decade after the release of the band’s eponymous debut Gorillaz, which was buoyed to the top by the irrepressible hits like “Clint Eastwood.” Their second release, Demon Days, held even bigger radio-wave favorites like “Feel Good Inc.” and “DARE.”
Plastic Beach, on the other hand, is less reliant on particular tracks for momentum. As an album, it holds to a theme of rampant consumerism and ecological doomsday. The album vaguely bases itself around one of its band members, 2D, being kidnapped and waking up on Plastic Beach, and various promotional videos show other members making their way to the same location. The words “plastic” and “beach” crop up in almost every track, and even Albarn noted in interviews that the album could be considered with a more conceptual approach than previous work, inspired by an experience of his at landfills in Mali and in London.
The downside to this, however, is exactly that: Plastic Beach doesn’t have a “Clint Eastwood.” Its first single, “Stylo,” is nothing to scoff at – a smooth drive through Mos Def’s slick raps, Albarn’s woozy vocals, and even some injected soul from R&B sensation Bobby Womack. But as it tries to reach a climax or even a memorable hook, it instead pushes forward into something more sprawling and less radio- and single-friendly than its predecessors.
Sixteen tracks, however, provide ample opportunity for guest artist experimentation, and Gorillaz definitely doesn’t shy away from new directions. For “White Flag,” Albarn traveled to Beirut to record with the National Orchestra for Arabic Music, and the resulting track handles a classical-to-rap transition with light-footed ease. The Velvet Underground’s Lou Reed takes the lead on “Some Kind of Nature,” but the end product trips up a bit between the Reed’s lazy drawl and Albarn’s ephemeral backing vocals. Even Snoop Dogg makes an early appearance, welcoming listeners over and over to “the world of the plastic beach” over a background of brass chorus from the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble.
Where the band really hits its stride, though, is in the “classics” – no featured collaborators, just Albarn and his proven musical sensitivity. “Rhinestone Eyes” hits an unsettlingly placid groove, with lazed-out lyrics stretched over tense synths in the background. As Albarn slowly drags through lines like “Your rhinestone eyes are like factories far away,” listeners remember the cool, detached sound that gave Gorillaz its closest bet to an iconic sound despite its rampant list of collaborators.
True, the album reaches in too many directions, but Gorillaz isn’t trying to hone in on a particular sound, and anyone who is disappointed over that should re-evaluate their priorities. Despite lacking a visible front-runner, other highlights in the album more than make up for a lack of a hard-hitting single. “Superfast Jellyfish” (which will be released alongside a video game) opens with a commercial for a microwave dinner and carries it into the most laid-back, joyous and carefree celebration of disgustingly consumer-driven culture, as Gruff Rhys and De La Soul banter about “crunchy, crunchy carrots, that’s chicken, gotta have it superfast.” And keeping with the album’s theme, “Electric Ants” reminds listeners with its stark and lonely dreamscape sound that the post-consumer future on Plastic Beach is also a solitary one.
There’s a lot to chew on in Plastic Beach. Rather than showing a lack of cohesive quality, though, it conveys a musical maturity that only comes into focus after multiple listens. By the second half of the album, the steam has petered out, but the first ten tracks are such individual gems that any other slip ups can be forgiven. Gorillaz, who will headline the last night of the Coachella Music and Arts Festival in three weeks, are rearing their heads again: “virtual” band or not, there’s nothing imaginary about their place in whatever genre they choose to explore next.
(Speaking of Coachella, the Treeswingers’ Coachella Countdown starts tomorrow! Check back every day until the big weekend for a new update.)
A version of this review will appear in The Stanford Daily on Friday, April 2.
Gorillaz- White Flag (Ft. Bashy, Kano & The National Orchestra for Arabic Music) (download)
Gorillaz – Rhinestone Eyes (download)
Gorillaz – Superfast Jellyfish (Ft. Gruff Rhys & De La Soul) (download)