It’s a little strange to realize that the Gorillaz have been around for ten years now. Created by Blur frontman Damon Albarn, and “Tank Girl” artist Jamie Hewlett, the Gorillaz, as a band, are represented by four Hewlett drawn cartoon characters; a device which allows Albarn to keep the illusion of an actual band, while in reality, collaborating on each album with whoever the hell he wants. It’s an experiment that probably should never have worked as well as it does, and it is a testament to the quality of the Gorillaz’s output that the premise has become so well accepted by the general listening public. Just the other day I was listening to the radio on my drive home from work, and “Stylo,” the first single off the band’s new album Plastic Beach, had just finished playing, when the DJ mentioned that there was a countdown on the Gorillaz’s website, one which she was hoping was leading to an announcement of a new tour schedule. Instead, however, it ended up simply being a countdown to the bassist Murdoc’s birthday. She did not mention, or imply, however, that that’s all just a tad bit silly, seeing as Murdoc is not a real person. It’s an amazing, grand scale success of suspension of disbelief that Albarn and Hewlett have been able to get us all past the novelty of a cartoon rock band, and simply accept the mystery.
Though to still call Gorillaz a “rock band” at this point probably does Albarn, Hewlett, and company a disservice. While the group’s self-titled debut album was certainly a sort of alt-rock effort, infused with the occasional bit of hip hop, each subsequent work has moved them further and further away from such a label. Their second release, Demon Days, featured rap much more heavily, but also included excursions into electronic dance music (on the tracks “White Light” and “DARE”), as well as the equal parts surprising and splendid Dennis Hopper spoken word track “Fire Coming Out of the Monkey’s Head,” among other hard-to-define-genre-wise songs.
Now, with Plastic Beach, the Gorillaz find themselves moving further towards the electronic. I suppose it’s only appropriate that an artificial band would develop a more synthetic sound, I only wish it were more exciting. While not necessarily “bad,” Plastic Beach is easily the weakest Gorillaz album to date. The first half of the album is promising, with stand out tracks including “White Flag,” a hip-hop piece by rappers Bashy and Kano, book-ended by marvelous instrumentals from the National Orchestra for Arabic Music, and “Superfast Jellyfish,” a funny and catchy take-down of junk food advertising featuring De La Soul. About halfway through the album, however, Albarn and Co. seem to lose momentum, and it all just becomes…dull.
I have no qualms with mellow music, and Blur’s more chill songs were some of their best (I’m looking at you “No Distance Left to Run”) , but these tracks run straight past “mellow” and venture right into “boring” territory. While the back-half Plastic Beach occasionally comes up for air and regains interest on the surprising and welcome Lou Reed contribution “Some Kind of Nature,” or the second Little Dragon collaboration “To Binge,” much of it fails to hold your attention. “Sweepstakes,” featuring Mos Def, and “Glitter Freeze,” featuring Mark E. Smith, are the worst offenders in this category, songs which seem to go on forever, yet serve no purpose whatsoever.
All in all, Plastic Beach isn’t a bad album by any means; while half the album is indeed quite tepid, the other half is certainly worth listening to. I suppose that’s the risk when you have with a band that’s actually more a series of collaborations than an actual band. Still, it’s good to see that Albarn is still working to expand his sound, and while Plastic Beach is a little bit of a dud, there are still two other excellent Gorillaz records floating around out there (not including all the b-sides and remixes), and I look forward to whatever it is Albarn and Hewlett decide to produce next from their cartoon quartet.
Addendum: You should definitely check out the band’s video for “Stylo;” it is delightfully insane. I can best describe it as “Bruce Willis tries to kill the Gorillaz.” Just watch.