By Andy Dunbar
The genre-hopping virtual group Gorillaz returned with their latest LP, their first in two years last week, and it is their best work in a decade.
Formed in London in 1998, the band came to fruition primarily out of front man Damon Albarn’s disdain for the popular music scene at the turn of the century. Fed up with the manufactured boy bands of the 1990s, he came up with the idea of a cartoon band whose world would be shown through animated music videos, short films and interviews. He partnered with comic artist Jamie Hewlett to bring his vision to life.
Several albums later, and one couldn’t turn on the radio in the 2000s without hearing Gorillaz’ “Feel Good Inc.” or “Clint Eastwood.” The group’s success was matched only by its versatility. Albarn and company deftly combine pop, alternative rock, reggae and hip-hop to craft an environment expansive enough for featured artists of all genres to feel at home. Gorillaz’ 2010 album “Plastic Beach” featured guest performances from Snoop Dogg and Lou Reed seven tracks apart.
The group’s latest effort, “Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez,” follows suit with a wide array of features including Elton John, Beck and Robert Smith of The Cure.
Even more than Gorillaz’ previous projects, “Song Machine” commits itself as a lively celebration of music. Opening tracks “Strange Times” and “Valley of the Pagans” call back to 80s New Wave; “Pac-Man” and “Dead Butterflies” satisfy old and new hip-hop fans alike; and longtime Gorillaz listeners will feel right at home in the electropop of “Désolé” and “The Lost Chord.”
Standout moments include Elton John’s emotive chorus on “The Pink Phantom,” ScHoolboy Q’s infectiously confident verses on “Pac-Man” and raucous English punk banger “Momentary Bliss,” which features only U.K. artists.
In the midst of the cacophony of features, Albarn’s songwriting remains typically strong. He reflects on COVID-19, quarantine and the volatile political environment of 2020, all while masking his unease with the help of longtime producer Remi Kabaka Jr.’s easygoing instrumentals.
“I feel so isolated without you / I can’t play a happy tune on my own, so stay by my side / High or low tide” he croons in “Aries” over the Joy Division-esque guitars. “I’m twitching in the grimy heat, I think I might be spinning” he delivers in a listless monotone over the Gothic synths of “Strange Timez,” returning to the issue of climate change which Gorillaz have consistently been comfortable touching upon in their music.
The band has always excelled at masking dark themes with upbeat instrumentals, but when tracks get heavy, the artists pull back and deliver a forthright cheerful ballad to clear the air – see the bubblegum pop of “MLS” following the menacing reggae found in “With Love To An Ex.” The album lacks the narrative of the group’s breakout record “Demon Days” or the politically charged mania of “Plastic Beach” but instead opts for a laid-back hour of effortlessly listenable pop tunes led by Albarn’s signature songwriting and bound together by help from bright young stars and veterans alike.
Do not expect a coherent, conceptual album because you will not find one here. The title “Song Machine” should clue listeners into the collaborative, open nature of this collection of songs, and the result is one of the finest releases of 2020.
The writer is a student at Providence College studying English and music.