Gorillaz have always sought creativity without boundaries. The multimedia collective essentially offer Damon Albarn’s musicality in full flight, the rolling cast of collaborators illustrating his tastes and passions, while refusing to be hemmed in by the neat identity of Blur, say.
The ongoing ‘Song Machine’ project, though, took this one step further. Breaking down the album cycle, Gorillaz opted for a series of singles, each one placing the role of collaboration within the creative process at its core. ‘Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez’ is a point of catch up, a kind of compilation of what the cartoon kids have been up to during this year of dystopia.
Having returned to our screens with the solid one-two of comeback record ‘Humanz’ and then 2018’s ‘The Now Now’, the chemistry that drives Gorillaz appears to be on imperious form. Jamie Hewlett has scarcely been so imaginative, as the group’s forthcoming almanac will no doubt attest to, while the songwriting has veered from synth-pop elegia to UK rap via aspects of trap.
As such, ‘Strange Timez’ is a thrilling ride, even if it can also be oddly unsatisfying. The best collaborations are the ones we least expect - ‘Aries’ allows Peter Hook to add swathes of glacial New Order textures to Damon Albarn’s voice, while Georgia’s appearance seems to explode from the speaker. Robert Smith’s heavenly contribution to the (sort of) titular track ‘Strange Timez’ are fantastic, tapping into the melancholia that drifts through some of Gorillaz’ best work.
A project with a prolonged rap love affair, ‘Strange Timez’ finds Gorillaz repping the UK underground. The inimitable Kano takes a starring turn on ‘Dead Butterflies’, while West London’s aural astronaut Octavian crops up on spiky workout ‘Friday The 13th’.
Curiously, some of the big hitters fall slightly flat. Gorillaz meet Beck for ‘The Valley Of The Pagans’ but the song itself never quite lives up to the star billing, while Elton John doesn’t add a great deal to ‘The Pink Phantom’.
But perhaps this is churlish. After all, Gorillaz should be applauded for their virtuosity, and at its best ‘Strange Timez’ is a glorious document of pop-without-barriers. St. Vincent steals the show on the woozy ‘Chalk Tablet Towers’, while ‘Momentary Bliss’ - with its double billing of Slaves and slowthai – is an immediate Gorillaz classic.
A record that walks the streets of West Africa and West London with equal confidence, ‘Strange Timez’ offers respite from the dark clouds that swarm above 2020, a gateway into another realm. Seasons come and seasons go but Gorillaz remain – we’re lucky to have them.
Words: Robin Murray
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