Release Date: Apr 28, 2017
Record label: Warner Bros.
Genre(s): Electronic, Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Left-Field Hip-Hop
There's an element of social commentary literally inked into every Gorillaz record. The "virtual band" formed by Blur frontman Damon Albarn and illustrator Jamie Hewlett in the late '90s uses two-dimensional cartoon avatars to skewer one-dimensional pop stars and the superficial culture in which they thrive. And that's only the beginning. Because he's able to filter his ideas through animated creatures, Albarn is free to lob rocks at mankind like a mischievous outsider.
If this is the sound of good music in this tentative spring of 2017, then there is hope yet for the arts. And where there is hope for the arts, there is hope for our politics. Humanz, the follow-up to Gorillaz' 2010 release The Fall, announces its ambitions in its title: how can we take this 26-track collection as anything but an attempt to illuminate in neon chiaroscuro the state of humanity in an age that seems fate-forged to challenge the very concept? Humanz does this and more.
Special guests have always provided the most blistering moments of Gorillaz’s work. From De La Soul’s timeless, cackling spot on ‘Feel Good Inc’ to Shaun Ryder (and his decapitated head) on ‘DARE’, these four characters have always called on some of music’s biggest names to give them a helping hand. On fourth album ‘Humanz’ though, they completely hand the floor to their guests.
Was a time when the relentless flow of new Gorillaz material seemed to come not just from a desire to capture each new creative leap - in both Damon Albarn's music and Jamie Hewlett's graphic design - but also to assert their claim to being the most modern band on the planet. After a seven-year lay-off between albums, however, and a well-publicised spat between Gorillaz's two creative masterminds, the group now returns to a very different world indeed. At least technology has somewhat caught up with their lofty ambitions.
On 2017's Humanz, Damon Albarn returns to Gorillaz after a seven-year hiatus -- a period when he busied himself with two operas, a solo album, and a Blur reunion -- and reconnects with the collaborative instincts that drove the band's first two albums. Plastic Beach -- the 2010 album that served as the group's last major opus (The Fall, released just months later, was that LP's bittersweet coda) -- found Albarn stepping toward the center stage but on Humanz he recedes, giving his collaborators the spotlight and softening whatever complicated narrative he and illustrator Jamie Hewlett devised for their cartoon group's fourth phase. Maybe this is why Humanz feels wild and unruly in a way Plastic Beach never did: the emphasis is on the individual cuts, not the grand concept.
I t is easy to forget that, on arrival in 2000, Gorillaz looked suspiciously like a self-indulgent novelty turn, the kind of project record labels feel impelled to let rock stars do when they've shifted so much product that "no" isn't really an option any more. It was a Britpop frontman and his artist flatmate's sneery joke at the expense of manufactured pop, with cartoon figures replacing the hapless, manipulated band members and interviews conducted, a little wearyingly, in character. You would have got pretty long odds on it still existing 17 years on, longer odds still on their fifth album being a politically charged conceptual work that variously touches on the topics of racism (courtesy of rapper Vince Staples on apocalyptic choir-assisted opener Ascension), mental illness, the pernicious influence of the internet "echo chamber", western military intervention in the Middle East, the "alt-right" belief that China has fabricated global warming, and the importance of soul music in the Thatcherite heartlands of 80s Essex (the improbable latter topic surfaces on a lovely track called Andromeda, named after a defunct Colchester nightclub, which also finds Albarn ruminating on the deaths of both his partner's mother and Bobby Womack over a four-to-the-floor house beat and frail electronics).
Under the guise of Gorillaz, Damon Albarn has become pop music's greatest curator. His track record for acquiring pertinent guests over the animated group's five albums is nothing short of remarkable, but even more impressive is how he has integrated these artists into the Gorillaz universe. As Albarn has explained, Humanz was born from an idea that the world was about to collapse based on one life-altering event. Obviously such a thing happened, making the gravitas all the more effective, but Gorillaz know how to write the "we're all doomed" narrative and make it fun.
"It's America that made Gorillaz," Damon Albarn said recently. The animated band's four albums have so far sold 16m copies worldwide - more than Blur - and that's largely thanks to America's warm embrace. Perhaps by way of thanks, this long-awaited fifth album is about America going to hell. The lawless, world-altering scenario 'Humanz' presents us with is not a poorly attended inauguration but a massive, cross-genre party, composed largely on an iPad by Albarn and illustrated by his mate Jamie Hewlett.
"It'll be alright in the end. And if it's not alright, it's not the end." - 2D. "Shut up 2D." - Murdoc. It's an end-of-the-world party, and we're all invited, but someone forgot the instruments and the band is playing off an iPad. After six years gone, it's deeply frustrating that Humanz can't shake the vibe of being underdeveloped, a series of beats from the iPad that gave us The Fall with famous artists thrown on in random configuration.
Though Gorillaz only exists, supposedly, in the minds of Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett, the band has often grappled with the real world. "911," featuring D-12 and Terry Hall, was written directly after 9/11. "Kids With Guns," from 2005's Demon Days, tackled teenage gang violence. But the world now seems as surreal as anything in Hewlett's comics, its most powerful figure an insane clown who would seem more at home in the pages of Tank Girl than in the White House.
While exhausted from the Britpop hangover that both he and his band Blur were desperate to escape, Damon Albarn devised the concept of a virtual band with artist Jamie Hewlett and minted it Gorillaz. While Gorillaz at first seemed like a mask for Albarn to hide his omnivorous musical tastes behind, it pushed him to create some of his best work and quietly became one of the most representative projects of 21st century popular music. Their second album, Demon Days, felt like the first real mainstream album that reflected the Internet’s cross-pollination effects on pop.
With just three official studio albums in their 17-year career to date (four, if you include the 2010 collection of iPad recorded sketches, The Fall) a new release by Gorillaz is always a cause for excitement. The self-proclaimed "world's first virtual hip-hop group" have always been far too breathlessly inventive to be pigeonholed in any one genre, with a kaleidoscopic range of influences and collaborators encompassing everything from ’60s R&B singers to Arabic string sections. At the centre of it all is that prolific polymath Damon Albarn, who seems to thrive on juggling a range of disparate musical projects unmatched by any other artist.
For all its charms, Britpop was the Brexit of Nineties rock: a cultural wagon-circle telegraphing a monocultural vision of fin de siècle England. To his credit, Damon Albarn has shaped his post-Blur career largely as a border-crashing counter-argument - most successfully with Gorillaz, his hip-hop-centric "virtual" band. Presenting its radio-friendly fusions via animated characters, it's among the most pop-savvy, and least cringe-inducing, rap-rock crossovers in history.
It's easy to forget in 2017 just how dedicated Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett once were to the business of Gorillaz being a cartoon band. In the early days I believe they only did interviews in character - presumably over email - as their animated alter egos 2-D and Murdoc (plus Noodle and Russel, who were also them), and on their first tour the human musicians were never seen, concealed behind a screen on which their alternate versions were projected. At the time this seemed like a slightly dickish but fairly acceptable thing to do, partly to differentiate the project from Albarn's then still active other band (that's Blur, btw), partly because British chart music was so boring in 2001 that a bunch of lairy toons were a blessed distraction.
In the spring of 2016, Damon Albarn tells Pusha T to picture, if he would, an album that envisioned Donald Trump winning the presidency. Albarn was working on new Gorillaz material, the first in six years, and he had been squinting at the man brandishing his shriveled claws at his Republican challengers and bragging about his dick size and imagining him in charge of the free world. "When it really happened," Pusha T said , "I was like, 'Wait a minute…I started wondering like, what type of crystal ball did this guy have?" It's a funny little anecdote, considering how closely the fifth studio album from Gorillaz resembles its predecessors in tone, style, and mood.
Gorillaz can’t be blamed for taking a long time to release a new record. Although it’s been seven years since 2010’s Plastic Beach — and that year’s followup iPad album, The Fall — it’s not like Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett have been sitting around tinkering with the Gorillaz. In the years since, Albarn got weird with Flea on Rocket Juice and the Moon, composed an opera, reunited and recorded with Blur, and even put out a solo album for himself.
There are many reasons why Gorillaz are a fascinating band, foremost of which is the way they skirt the question of identity. From the beginning, their cartoon natures not only obscured the real people making their music, but threatened to discount it as pure novelty; a silly Saturday-morning-cereal band that made goofy hip-hop didn't seem destined to become one of the most singular pop forces within a decade. Yet here we are, with the release of Humanz, Gorillaz's fourth album and the one least removed from real-world identity questions.
Musicians who become successful for a specific sound can quickly find themselves hemmed in by expectations. Damon Albarn has taken his guitar-led Britpop group Blur in flagrantly electronic and gospel directions over the years, but it's with his Gorillaz project that he's truly able to chuck the script out the window. Initially a "cartoon band" collaboration with comic artist Jamie Hewlett, Gorillaz have since evolved into a pop free-for-all that frequently cedes lead vocal duties to some of music's most distinctive voices - both new and not-so-new.
"T he sky is falling baby/ Drop that ass 'fore it crash," chants Vince Staples on the nagging Ascension, the first song on Gorillaz's soundtrack for a party at the end of the world. Billed as a nonstop, 125bpm-and-over playlist, the return of Gorillaz after seven years largely delivers on the promise of a rolling vibe - one with a scream emoji hovering just in the wings. Front and centre, fun is available; "millennialz" are definitely invited to this nearly 20-year-old project.
When Gorillaz announced Humanz, their first album in seven years, it was reasonable to wonder if reactivating the virtual-band conceit served much purpose at this juncture. After all, Damon Albarn has spent the last few years putting his real face forward and eschewing his virtual one—first with his very personal solo album Everyday Robots and then with Blur's The Magic Whip. This would surely only make Gorillaz co-founder Jamie Hewlett's cartoon world feel less immersive and convincing.
Gorillaz' fifth album was intended to be a dystopian fiction. Damon Albarn envisioned a future in which America would suffer a disaster so seismic that the only possible response would be the party to end all parties. On November 8th 2016 said imagined event became reality, leaving Albarn and co-creator Jamie Hewlett in the perfect position to provide the apocalyptic party they'd dreamt up.
Blur are my Beatles. Graham is a spot on 90’s George. Damon is John. Damon is also Paul and Ringo. He’s also Phil Spector and Yoko. Here’s the thing though, Damon has done something almost none of the classic rock stars did: have a successful band and then another that ….
The first Gorillaz album in six years, "Humanz" (Warner), ends with a tongue-in-cheek musical detente between two former Britpop rivals -- Blur's Damon Albarn and Oasis' Noel Gallagher. "We got the power to be loving each other," they sing, a notion that brought Noel's estranged brother Liam Gallagher to a boil. In a series of social-media rants, he compared the song to the 1985 Mick Jagger-David Bowie duet on "Dancing in the Street," a low point in both singers' careers.
"Imagine a night where everything that you believed was turned on its head. How would you feel?" Damon Albarn posed that question early last year to his stable of collaborators in the making of "Humanz," the first LP in seven years from genre-busting animated band Gorillaz. Albarn may have blurred all references to Donald Trump in the lyrics, but it's still obvious what that night was supposed to be.
Pop quiz: name the four members of Gorillaz. Nearly twenty years after their creation by Britpop war vet Damon Albarn and indie comic book artist Jamie Hewlett, the cartoon angle of the pop art project has never quite factored into the group's fandom, which hasn't stopped them from outselling Albarn's previous band by millions of copies. A cartoon band wasn't quite a novel idea--though one imagines what the Archies might have been like with Gorillaz's star power--but Albarn did expertly anticipate the 21 st century's iTunes shuffle aesthetic/ omnivore producer trend with the project, finding peers with Diplo, Danger Mouse, Dr.