If this really is the last Gorillaz album, I suppose I should be happy that the “band” is going out on an up note (but why must they go at all, I ask). Plastic Beach, the third release from the cartoon band (Murdoc, 2D, Russell and Noodle) features everything we’ve come to expect from Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlitt’s decade-old project. Inspired collaborations? Check. Snoop Dogg, Bobby Womack, Mos Def, De La Soul and Gruff Rhys of Super Furry Animals are just a few of the big names that appear on the album. Inventive musical compositions? Check (of particular notes is the fusion of British hip-hop and Arabic music on “White Flag”). Freaky album concept and artwork? Check and check. With this album’s story, the fearsome foursome now reside on the titular beach, which is overrun with the (plastic) refuse of modern life.
While some have complained that Plastic Beach lacks immediacy and a noticeable hit in the vein of “Clint Eastwood” or “Feel Good, Inc,” I beg to differ. Have they listened to the stunning, beat-driven “White Flag” or the propulsive, highly danceable “Stylo?”
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Gorillaz coalesced as a concept in 1998 when British comic book artist, Jamie Hewlett and Blur frontman Damon Albarn got the idea for a cartoon band from hours of MTV watching. The idea was to mock the substance-free music on MTV. But there was a slight problem. The music produced for Gorillaz’s first (self-titled) album (which Albarn produced with studio whiz Dan the Automator) was actually good. Folks fell for the loopy first single “Clint Eastwood,” and the album went on to sell seven million copies worldwide.
Album No. 2, Demon Days, dropped in 2005 and found Albarn collaborating with musician-producer extraordinaire, Danger Mouse. The result was the band’s best selling album to date, and its highest charting U.S. single, “Feel Good Inc. (Billboard #14).
Now comes Plastic Beach, which opens with a swelling orchestral intro that then flows into Snoop Dogg’s laconic rap on “Welcome to the World of the Plastic Beach.” Elsewhere, Lou Reed joins the party, contributing a detached vocal on “Some Kind of Nature,” which resembles Demon Days’ “Kids With Guns” in both tempor and temperament.
Two of the album’s most significant contributions come from alt-rapper/actor, Mos Def and soul legend Bobby Womack. On lead single “Stylo” Def and Womack rap and sing, respectively over a high-powered electro beat. And Def manages to make his vocal soar, despite it sounding like he left it for Albarn as a voice mail. Womack, meanwhile, does more than merely sing a hook. He positively blazes his vocal across the entire track injecting it with fire-and-brimstone soul. Womack turns up again on the slow-burning, futuristic soul song “Cloud of Unknowing.”Elsewhere, “Sweepsteaks” finds Mos Def delivering a blistering rap over a skittering beat.
Other standout tracks include: the aforementioned “White Flag,” in which British rappers Kano and Bashy rhyme over a divine Eastern-tinged beat; “Empire Ants,” whcih features a duet between Albarn and Swedish pop group Little Dragon; and the return of De La Soul to the world of Gorillaz on the loopy, commercial-sampling “Super Fast Jelly Fish” – this time with an assist from Super Furry Animals lead vocalist, Gruff Rhys.
Overall, I can’t speak to whether the album holds the story thread put forward by Albarn & crew; but throughout, Albarn crafts a heady mix of styles – pop, soul, electro, rock – that’s hard to resist. I hope we’re not hearing it for the last time.