Gorillaz - Plastic Beach Review

Damon Albarn is one of the more unusual pop stars of our times. It’s actually easy to forget that he’s a pop star at all despite being in the genre’s vanguard for the last twenty years and being a part of groups that sell tons of records (the last two Gorillaz LPs alone have seen some 15 million copies fly off the shelves). Making more headlines as BritPop provocateur than media-baiting hellion didn’t help (despite his Blur-era satirical fame-whore persona better known in the UK); neither did the fact that he spent most of the last decade under the guise of cartoon monkey men. Dictating talent over temper, as well as standing alone (and looking ahead) instead of copying/watering down, even makes him seem elusive as a trendsetter. But more than any of that, there’s the fact that modern pop has become to the masses synonymous with torpid R&B, wilted rock, and bubblegum while Albarn remains in that select group with the M.I.A.s and Thom Yorkes of the world that not only continue anticipating instead of regurgitating but see intricate subtlety as opportunity for something drastic.

The subtlety plays as Plastic Beach’s greatest coup and its weakest selling point. Despite some sketchy nature of conceptualization, the last two Gorillaz albums were known for their sporadic (even spastic) willpowers, hodgepodges of sounds across popular music that felt as loosely interlocked as their B-side (er, D & G-side) collections. With the virtual band’s third record, though, Albarn and crew have devised a way to be spontaneous with their fusions but keep a specific frame of reference (nearly) the entire way. Added to the usual gripes about celebrity culture and consumerism is an ecological slant—a future vision of an island composed of man-made garbage, stained by misery despite the oft-gorgeous drift and gurgle of the sonic texture. As for that weak selling point, though, it should be no surprise that there’s no “Clint Eastwood” or “Feel Good Inc.” in the mix; amusing that as Gorillaz becomes more real, their style would transition more cult. As such, it lacks the immediacy of its predecessors but rewards replays more.

The virtual band’s curious nature of freeform genre swapping has always been one of their most rewarding traits, but on Plastic Beach, the weird interludes, mod experiments and far-flung bricolage have been pared away for a series of undulations that may trade on instruments but not intent. This album is primarily based around cycling synth figures; pointed, clacking, throbbing or pounding, it’s a near-perfect marriage of early motorik and midnight house. Take nearly any individual track and compare it to another and you’ll find a wealth of difference in detail and sound, but rarely during the disc’s flow do you truly notice the breaks. Perhaps a few too many songs follow the same formula—slowly unfolding introductions eventually adjoin the elements for bolder, hookier midsections—but that commitment simply emphasizes its illusory nature.

After the neo-soul synth blasts of “Welcome to the Plastic Beach” and the strings and flutes of “White Flag” bring us in, Gorillaz do remind us of their hitmaker talents. “Rhinestone Eyes” burbles and twinkles at the outset but turns flush with steely keys and “Electric Shock” samples (a track that, sadly, did not make the final cut). “Stylo” is more about attitude and momentum than anything verbal but it burns with muted radiance underneath the Autobahn chug. “Glitter Freeze” employs the standard issue synth thud making rounds in dozens of hit songs (instantly recognizable from a recent Muse single) but chops it up with off-kilter beats and electro-screws. The wistful, endearing brightness of “On Melancholy Hill” is reminiscent of Blur’s finest melodies. “Superfast Jellyfish” is the rare Beach track that stands alone (perhaps negatively so) because of its goofy humor, fey melody, and skewed personalities, but remains irresistibly catchy. And “Sweepstakes” finds jumbling, jiving Mos Def verses hop-scotching around rampaging horns and morse code keys. Despite these shining moments, it takes several passes for most of these to latch on—luckily, several remain unpredictable even after many listens. Towards the end, though, velocity flags and the listener is treated to three slow, drifting dirges in a row to cap off the record; individually, each have their strong suits (including a warm, soulful spot for Bobby Womack on “Cloud of Unknowing” and dramatic, organ-like synths blaring through “Pirate Jet”), but in their place, it creates an anti-climactic drag that might work in its loose concept context but not amidst the luxuriant thrill offered by so many previous left field winners that seeped their way into the listener’s brains.

The characters that make up the so-called Gorillaz are still on hand, but more than ever before, the guest stars play a credible role as mouthpiece (ironic, of course, considering its “album-y” stance). After a brief orchestral opener, it’s Snoop Dogg of all people to break the spell, welcoming us to the titular landmark with his typical laidback swagger. Numerous British heroes of the punk/rebel landscape show up later on, including Mick Jones, Mark E. Smith, and the inimitable Lou Reed, with his memorable dry croon getting dashed to bits when he drawls, “The needy eat mayonaise/They wear phony clothes/They sit with our picture/Up until they grow o-o-o-o-old.” De La Soul shows up on “Superfast Jellyfish,” and there’s no mistaking Gruff Rhys’ swelling gusto when he delivers the chorus. But it’s Mos Def and Bobby Womack you remember best; better even then their separate appearances is when they match each other on first single “Stylo”’s narcotic funk pulse—Mos is immeasurably laconic in delivery while Womack is bursting at the seams. As for the “real” players, 2D is as languidly lo-fi as ever, giving these guests the opportunity to prove their mettle (and insist against superfluous accusations) all the while reminding us of the element we miss most: Albarn’s penchant for harmonies and sharp phrasings.

Despite mostly admirable integration (of the lot, only UK rappers Bashy and Kano are intrusive, especially when they break up the searing beauty of the Lebanese National Orchestra for Oriental Arabic Music’s contribution on “White Flag”), this remains Albarn’s show most of the way (he also produced most of the record). Plastic Beach’s origins lie in a project called Carousel that was supposed to be a collaboration of dozens of different artists (as “presented” by Gorillaz instead of “performed” by). But now it’s pop auteur Damon Albarn working through the novel pretext of Gorillaz with guest stars doing their best to play along (or keep up). Not surprising then that it’s the most consistently rousing effort under the Gorillaz name. Who cares if their other albums had better singles? No need to keep the skip button in reach when this one is spinning.

Note: Although it was no factor in judging the merits of this album, hopefully in the near future a special edition of this album will include all the missing and re-tooled demos—the older versions would have interrupted the album flow, but on their own, several outshine the versions that ended up on plastic. In addition to the excision of “Electric Shock”—one hell of a nifty, nasty number with narrative-fluid orchestration giving way to dance-crazy mayhem—very different versions of “White Flag,” “Glitter Freeze,” and others are worth absorbing. Worst of all, a nearly 13-minute Prince-esque vamp with an absolutely hypnotic rhythm disappeared—it could have been one of the year’s best songs!

"Plastic Beach" is on sale March 9, 2010 from Virgin.

Matt Medlock


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