Gorillaz, the British, Grammy-winning, virtual band that is the brain child of Blur’s Damon Albarn and comic book artist Jamie Hewlett, has achieved international renown with a genre-transcending sound that combines elements of hip-hop, R&B, electronic and alternative music. Collaborating with musicians from across the spectrum of contemporary popular music, Gorillaz consistently impresses with its ability to redefine its sound and appearance in each album. The result remains something wholly original and constantly captivating.
Gorillaz’ third LP, “Plastic Beach,” emerged out of Albarn’s fascination with pieces of plastic he found at a beach near his home in England. Through the course of 16 songs, he paints a picture of that plastic beach, allowing us to inhabit the tainted tranquility of its hazy atmosphere. In some ways, the record is a concept album; from beginning to end, the songs constantly evoke the sun-drenched melancholy of Albarn’s beach, wavering from sugary synth-pop to midnight electro often in the same track.
Snoop Dogg provides the album’s opening catchphrase —“Welcome To The World Of The Plastic Beach”—on a bed of wavering strings and bursts of brass, courtesy of the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble. The introduction is not so much a series of rap verses as it is a throwback to the days of George Clinton’s space-funky spoken introductions. After a lengthy instrumental by the Lebanese National Orchestra for Oriental Arabic Music, “White Flag” evolves into a bass-thumping, hip-hop backbeat to an island videogame, as British rappers Kano and Bashy trade lyrics left and right. “Rhinestone Eyes,” the fourth song on the album–and yet the first one to actually feature Albarn’s voice–builds synths around vocal chanting to create something oddly menacing but compelling at the same time. The album’s first single, “Stylo,” comes next, featuring a distant and fuzzed-out Mos Def rapping over a retro-flavored, after-hours, electro-funk beat. Coupled with Bobby Womack’s grizzled baritone, the track plays like the soundtrack to an ‘80s blaxploitation film set in San Diego. “Superfast Jellyfish” pulls us temporarily out of the gloom as keyboard pastels color the song amidst wheezing horns and distorted, syrupy vocals by Super Furry Animals lead singer Gruff Rhys. De La Soul makes a notable appearance exchanging verses, but the real delight is in the song’s squeaky-clean chorus, on which Albarn and Rhys come together to chant the “Superfast” refrain.
The album’s standout track, “Empire Ants,” might be the best song Albarn has ever recorded under the Gorillaz name. A timid, soothing guitar joined with an airy piano and adorned with faint, seemingly endless organs illustrates a sunset on Albarn’s plastic beach while his tired, sullen voice echoes in and out of focus. The song climaxes as glass shards of synth introduce a pounding bass line and Little Dragon’s Yukimi Nagano takes over the lead vocals. Her childlike voice is peppered with a melancholy nostalgia that complements Albarn’s perfectly.
On “Glitter Freeze,” thin glissandos of electricity ebb and flow, pausing only to hear Mark E. Smith of The Fall snarl and cackle from some post-apocalyptic loudspeaker as the song’s tones swell into chaos. Out of that chaos comes “Some Kind Of Nature,” an unusual piano romp featuring Lou Reed’s signature weathered speak-singing, urging us to “wrap up the sun and protect the girls from the spiritual poison we expel at night”–not an uncommon mantra from the Velvet Underground front man and music legend. Less common is hearing Reed’s voice cranked through Albarn’s oddball assembly line of ticks and beeps. But in the end, the hooks are undeniably appealing.
Although the album boasts its fair share of poppy material, “Plastic Beach” really shines in its darkest, weirdest moments. Whether it’s the dissonant vocals on the title track or the crushed, sepia-toned organs on “Broken,” the album functions best at bringing us into Albarn’s world, dark though it may be. The result is the band at its most mature. Gone are the days of Albarn’s pop-flavored production and quirky vocals. “Plastic Beach” demands more from the listener, inviting us to a sun-splattered ambiance where we find ourselves not entirely comfortable.
Look for Gorillaz in a rare headlining appearance at this year’s Coachella. Curious about how a virtual band can perform live? Go and find out—the performance is surely not to be missed.