ALBUM REVIEW Gorillaz comes back with Plastic Beach
Finally. compressing genres and decades, catchy, innovative songs abound
Released March 3, 2010
Parlophone and Virgin
More than a decade has passed since Blur’s lead singer Damon Albarn and artist Jamie Hewlitt spun Gorillaz out of nothing more than a growing appreciation for electronic music and four punk-ass cartoon characters. Since 1998, the band has fused dance, African, gospel, electronic, rap, and rock music into three hypnotically good albums, long since eclipsing the popularity of Blur here in the United States. Albarn has collaborated with a huge number of varied artists over the last ten years, but is the sole music visionary behind Gorillaz, composing all the lyrics, setting all the orchestration, and writing all the music. Like Gorillaz (2001) and Demon Days (2005), his newest effort Plastic Beach (2010) features a range of musical guests that spans both decades and genres. These cameos, far from obscuring Albarn’s artistic voice, serve only to highlight his distinctive musical voice that eludes categorization but is easily identifiable.
Like a child in his parent’s attic, Albarn rummages through the back catalogs of rock and rap, picking and choosing the elements he wants to deploy in each song, and then combines them in ways previously unimaginable. This method yields strange musical bedfellows, producing songs like “White Flag” that mix London rappers Bashy and Kano with the National Orchestra for Arabic Music. Possibly more talented than any other artist in this respect, Albarn can teleport artists from their genres and display their talents in a radical context, weaving their voices into something unique that could not exist without Gorillaz.
The backstory finds the four members of the cartoon-band Gorillaz on an island comprised entirely of landfill, and charts their journeys and adventures. Ostensibly about waste-intensive consumer culture, Plastic Beach invokes a hallucinogenic version of T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” where bright, toxic colors replace the oppressive gray described in the poem. Plastic Beach doesn’t recreate the balls-out danceability of “DARE” or “Feel Good Inc.” from Demon Days, instead sharing the laid-back tempo of the band’s self-titled debut Gorillaz. Setting the mood and entreating listeners to sever their obligations to the real world, the second track, “Welcome to the World of the Plastic Beach,” opens with an offer from Snoop Dogg to act as the archetypal mystical advisor, guiding you about the island: “Kids, gather ‘round, I need your focus / I know it seems like the world is so hopeless / It’s like Wonderland.”
Channeling a sound familiar to fans of Demon Days, “Rhinestone Eyes” takes Plastic Beach visitors for a mellow acid hike down the coast; Walking alongside synthesizer waves and watching rhinestone meteor showers, this song is one of the album’s best. By invoking breathtaking imagery of grotesque pollution, the song makes you feel the mind-altering drugs coursing through your veins, altering your perspective, and allowing you too to find beauty in the misery of the shore. “Stylo” the next song, builds slowly to work off the drug-induced stupor of the previous track, but picks up as classic-soul crooner Bobby Womack takes the reins from Mos Def, wailing over a stilted, electric, eighties bass-line.
While space constrains a full review of all 16 songs, other instant favorites include “Superfast Jellyfish” that melds slow-tempo rap, a looped commercial for breakfast cereal, and a reggae chorus into a coherent entity. “Glitter Freeze,” an all-out electronic assault, sounds like a post-modern replacement for Paul Dukas’s score in Mickey Mouse’s “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” (You know, the one with the brooms from Fantasia.) Packing some power into the album’s later listings, the title track “Plastic Beach” kicks off with a western-showdown, pacing out the time until high-noon only to disintegrate and reform as rising and falling arpeggios, punctuated by wet electronic riffs and eerie harmonics.
Amid a solid 12 great songs, the stand-out best is “Some Kind of Nature” featuring Lou Reed. Albarn severs Reed from the rock genre that many credit him with birthing, and transplants his talent into a new medium. The song features Reed singing Cake-style over an R&B rhythm about the uses inhabitants of Plastic Beach find for the garbage surrounding them. Gravelly and cantankerous, Reed imparts a little of his own disgust in the way he almost spurns the lyrics as they leave his mouth, treating them like the detritus they describe: “Some kind of nature, some kind of soul./ Some kind of mixture, Some kind of gold./Some kind of majesty, some chemical load.” So complete is the transformation from heroin-rocker to R&B stylist that the voice-processing employed by Albarn to break up some of the longer notes seems both natural and fitting.
Whipping through genres and influences faster than a determined listener can count, Plastic Beach possesses everything fans have come to expect from a Gorillaz album. Accomplishing the difficult feat of creating an album with a personality distinct from its predecessors but without losing any of his characteristic sound, Albarn continues to innovate without losing any of the catchiness that pushed Demon Days to double platinum in the United States. I just hope we don’t have to wait five more years for the next album.