After a five-year break from music, the animated band Gorillaz seems dead-set on taking the world by storm, once again. Dreamt up by British pop star Damon Albarn, the British virtual rockers (2D, Murdoc Niccals, Russel Hobbs, and Noodle) deliver a fresh, exciting sound on their new album, Plastic Beach. This time around, armed with a hodgepodge group of guests (including Snoop Dogg, Mos Def, Bobby Womack, Velvet Underground founder Lou Reed, and electro-soul band Little Dragon), Gorillaz have created a lush, synth-heavy album that proves their staying power.
Innumerable synthesizers layer on top of one another on “Welcome to the World of the Plastic Beach” featuring Snoop Dogg, which showcases Snoop at his absolute smoothest. More than a song, it is an intimate conversation with whomever lends him an ear. Here he is at his most relaxed, rolling off rhymes about fairytales, Wonderland, and mirror-mirrors on the wall as the backing music swells and soars.
“White Flag” kicks off with a tribal drumbeat, followed by an oriental-sounding flute. This is Albarn’s forte: He enjoys having the freedom that a cartoon band allows him to experiment with different genres of music. Suddenly, “Flag” flips into a trippy, 1980s-style rap featuring British rappers Bashy and Kano, sounding here like the early Beastie Boys. The album then moves into its first single, “Stylo.” Rife with pumping beats, low-key raps, and stunning vocals, “Stylo” refreshingly harkens back to 60s soul. Womack’s soulful and heartbreaking croon unhinges the song, sending it off its coolly composed rails, but rapper Mos Def restores some equilibrium.
Albarn is a master at fostering an emotional connection between his audience and his songs. The best example of this is the ethereal “On Melancholy Hill.” The song kicks off with a steady drumbeat but winds up, carrying the listener away to a heavenly place. It really is the perfect pop song, both bursting with emotion and filled with stellar vocals and music. Mos Def appears again on “Sweepstakes,” which he tackles all by himself. Things really get interesting once the song shifts into an entirely new beat that wraps around his voice. Then, just when you think you have a hold on it, the track explodes into a Miami big band jam, courtesy of The Hypnotic Brass Ensemble.
In a genius move, Albarn enlists Lou Reed for “Some Kind of Nature,” which he attacks with devilish and defiant wit. The drum machine intro, evocative of the alternative band The Kills, is proof of Albarn’s interest in keeping up with musical trends. Here, Reed sounds as pissed off as ever, his anger directed at the band itself. “Nature” gives Reed the chance to protest the concept of the album. His sharp-tongued lyrics (“Some kind of nature, some kind of soul …”) are aimed at convincing Gorillaz to just give nature a chance, instead of jumping ship to a plastic-filled world.
A real standout track is the mainly instrumental “Glitter Freeze.” With an intro full of sirens, horns, and repetition, the song is simultaneously reminiscent of Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love” and the work of other current British artists like Little Boots and La Roux. The track is trancelike, invoking head nodding and toe tapping. The melody always seems to be leading somewhere but, mystically, sends the listener to musical worlds unknown. The only real letdown is the track ironically titled “Broken.” It seems more like filler than anything else. It is bursting at the seams with cliches, which is extremely unlike the band. The track plods along monotonously, like it knows it doesn’t belong on what is otherwise a brilliant album.
As an album, Plastic Beach provides a biting commentary on the “plasticity” of the celebrity culture that our society revolves around. On the title track, Albarn compares Hollywood to a “Styrofoam deep sea landfill.” Albarn showers America’s fascination with pop culture on the biting track “Superfast Jellyfish,” in which he takes jabs at network television, dollar menus, and infomercials. The funniest thing about it is that the song could easily be one of the Top-40 hits that it is so gleefully mocking, and, if Albarn has his way, it just might be. 9 out of 10.