Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett’s musical cartoon phenomenon returns after five years with a dazzling roll call of contributors. Have too many cooks spoiled the broth?
Abarn and Hewlett, of course, haven’t been resting on their laurels. (Laurels which admittedly include multi-platinum sales, multiple Grammy nominations and an actual Grammy win.) The duo – Hewlett on the pen, Albarn in the studio – with various collaborators, found time since ‘Demon Days’ to dream up the Monkey: Journey To The West opera, based on a sixteenth century Chinese text but best known in the West from the dubbed ’70s TV version with Monkey, Pigsy, Sandy and Tripitaka.
Now regrouping for another studio album, the duo return behind the curtain to pull the strings of 2D, Noodles, Murdoc and Russell with customary assistance from an impressive list of collaborators. Rapper Mos Def even gets a cartoon alter ego, Sun Moon Stars, for his two appearances on the album, while elsewhere the guestlist includes soul man Bobby Womack, The Fall’s Mark E Smith, Super Furry Animals’ Gruff Rhys, The Clash and Carbon/Silicon’s Mick Jones, Paul Simonon – Albarn’s bandmate from The Good, The Bad and The Queen, Sweden’s Little Dragon, Snoop Dogg, Kano, Bashy and, last heard on ‘Demon Days’’ Grammy-winning ‘Feel Good Inc.’, De La Soul.
Even with that extensive list, many other tracks haven’t made the cut. Mentioned in interviews by the artist guesting, efforts featuring The Horrors, The Bee Gees’ Barry Gibb and further tracks featuring both Gruff Rhys and Mos Def are A.W.O.L. Given the number and quality on show, however, they aren’t missed. What has become ‘Plastic Beach’ started life as a grand project entitled ‘Carousel’, which perhaps draws a parallel with Pete Townshend’s scrapped ‘Lifehouse’ concept, which birthed The Who’s career highlight album, ‘Who’s Next’.
The narrative of this new Gorillaz outing goes that the quartet are now ensconced on their own Plastic Beach, made from the detritus of modern life, at a point furthest away from all other human life, with Damon explaining; “I suppose what I’ve done with this Gorillaz record is I’ve tried to connect pop sensibility with…trying to make people understand the essential melancholy of buying a ready-made meal in loads of plastic packaging.”
Despite being described by Albarn as a real “pop” album, on first listen there aren’t any songs in the mould of ‘Dirty Harry’, ‘Dare’ or ‘Feel Good Inc.’. We begin with ‘Orchestral Intro’, doing what it says on the tin, before moving into ‘Welcome To The World Of The Plastic Beach’. Featuring the Doggfather himself, Snoop Dogg, and a vocodered Albarn on backing vocals, its pulsating bass eases the listener in with some G-funk synth squeals making Snoop feel at home.
The UK’s own Kano and Bashy, alongside the suitably exotic Lebanese National Orchestra for Oriental Arabic Music, shoehorn themselves onto ‘White Flag’, its Middle Eastern string intro dissolving in a cloud of reverb as London arrives in the shape of Bashy then Kano. It’s a collaboration that’s very Gorillaz. Or, should I say, Damon Albarn, as it’s primarily his vision as such holding these disparate elements in place.
Settling down after the opening salvo, Albarn himself supplies the melancholy to ‘Rhinestone Eyes’ before the familiar lead “leaked” single ‘Stylo’ pitches Mos Def’s deadpan delivery against Bobby Womack’s chorus histrionics to great effect. ‘Superfast Jellyfish’ recalls the highlights of ‘Demon Days’, with De La Soul taking the rap lead while Gruff Rhys adds the newly located pop chorus. ‘Empire Ants’ is a lighter, acoustic led effort that, behind Albarn’s vocals, conspire to make it sound like Blur. That is until the lasers hit the disco ball at the halfway point and Little Dragon’s Yukimi Nagano takes over.
Mark E Smith’s contribution to ‘Glitter Freeze’ should be credited as ‘disembodied ranting’ as his vocals leap forth intermittently over the laidback 303 Glitter Band stomp. Upping the odds, Lou Reed opens ‘Some Kind Of Nature’, providing the droll counterpoint to Damon’s strained chorus falsetto. When he spoke of this album being a pop record, ‘Some Kind Of Nature’ and neighbours ‘Melancholy Hill’ and ‘Broken’ would be foremost in encapsulating such notions. Space-age bleeping and blinking ditties shake free Gorillaz’ usual foundationrooted bass heavy sound and makes sense of notions that, stripped of the collaborators, Gorillaz is Albarn’s solo project.
Mos Def returns on ‘Sweepstakes’, holding down a sparse, joyless rhythm until the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble arrive and turn things into a Rio-esque carnival. The album’s title track adds erstwhile Clash bandmates Mick Jones and Paul Simonon to the space station’s school disco vibe to little effect. Little Dragon reappear on the fragile ‘To Binge’ before ‘Cloud Of Unknowing’’s interstellar ballroom waltz gainssome meat by way of Bobby Womack’s vocal before ‘Pirate Jet’ closes affairs with a Dennis The Menace level horror movie theme.
An intoxicating cocktail of musical styles and pioneers, ‘Plastic Beach’ is instantly recognisable as a Gorillaz album despite, or perhaps because of, its scatter shot styles, contributors and voices. Best when he’s corralling others into out-of-their-comfort-zone creativity, it’s the Albarn-sung tracks on the second half of the album where the attention wanders and the album opening Snoop Dogg cameo seems a million miles away. Of course, there’s alot here to take in and maybe it just needs a fair few listens to fully digest it – the sign of any album worth its salt.