After seven years on the sidelines, Damon Albarn’s cartoon outfit returns to the real world with Humanz.
The music industry has been in desperate need of Gorillaz for some time now. As a literal ‘aping’ of the cultural and political zeitgeist, there has never been a greater need for someone to hold up a mirror to the ugly world we live in.
So in regards to observing the guiding principles of Gorillaz, Humanz is an unbridled success. A thunderous 26-track anthology opining geo-politics in 2017, the album is equally effective in parroting the meaningless and manufactured music that dominates radio airwaves. But of course, it’s alright when Gorillaz do it.
That may seem like blind favouritism, but you have to consider the way in which this is done. The band’s eponymous debut album was a response to the dub and garage scene of the late 90’s. Arguably the animated four piece’s zenith, Demon Days was both a typical post-9/11 political statement and mid-2000s alt-rock masterpiece. 2010’s Plastic Beach was perhaps the most overtly political, with a strong environmental message, but it was also an attempt to make sense of the overly-produced RnB music of the age.
Common to all of these albums is an attempt to make something meaningful of something manufactured. Humanz is unbelievably adept at this.
The album roars into life with the Vince Staples collaboration ‘Ascension.’
You are now tuned into the tomb of Jehova / Play my tunes loud enough to shake the room, what’s the hold up? / Heard the world is ending soon I assumed that they told ya / They tryna dinosaur us / So now it’s time to go up
Ascension is a brilliant microcosm of the whole album, encapsulating the album’s mantra of ‘pain, joy and urgency’ in addition to explicitly tackling US social politics: “Police everywhere, it’s like a nigga killed a white man.”
Musically, Humanz is radically different from anything else the band has done. There are glimpses of vintage Albarn falsetto melancholia, but for the most part, the voice of fictional lead singer 2-D takes a backseat to the endless roll-call of collaborators and contributors. As a hardcore Albarn fan, this started out as a bit of a disappointment, but quickly developed into a ‘brevity is the soul of wit’ scenario. In an attempt to mirror the times, the album predominantly borrows from EDM, club and funk influences.
The trademark lethargy of a Gorillaz record is all-but lost with Humanz, as the album careens from one upbeat rap soliloquy to the next. ‘Momentz’ featuring Del La Soul initially comes off as a jarring experience, but it rapidly wriggles into your ear in the exact same way as previous Gorillaz/Del La Soul collaborations ‘Feel Good Inc’ and ‘Superfast Jellyfish’.
Losing the lethargy paves the way for a new Gorillaz experience. Up until now, Gorillaz music tended to be an introspective stoner-esque experience, but now you can’t help but dance.
If you don’t feel compelled to dance when ‘Andromeda’ comes on, it must be playing at a funeral. The smooth, melodic club track gently bounces between your ears, and, as a measure of its success, had a fat, hairy British bloke treating his modest studio flat as the grooviest of dancefloors.
That’s not to say that there aren’t more solemn moments on the album. As the sole Albarn-only track, ‘Busted and Blue’ does stick out somewhat conspicuously. Though that doesn’t end up mattering at all when you begin to appreciate its genital-melting, doey-eyed goodness. Busted and Blue ranks among the elite Albarn-a-tons, hitting that cathartic gloomy note in the sweetest manner.
A lot of people have been moaning about the lack of Albarn in Humanz, and dislike the album’s heavy reliance on guest artists. It certainly symbolises a step-change from previous albums, markedly increasing the number of collaborators. At times, the album can feel a little overcrowded, perhaps best epitomised by the admittedly brilliant ‘The Apprentice’ featuring Rag ‘n’ Bone Man, Zebra Katz, RAY BLK and Albarn himself. While the music itself is more than pleasant, I can’t help but feel that the cramped credits somewhat cheapen the Gorillaz premise, whose previous albums felt very exclusive and special.
In fairness, this is a conceptual gripe and it is certainly not the case for the album’s best song, ‘Let Me Out’ featuring Mavis Staples and Pusha T. The track borrows from great Gorillaz songs before it, namely Stylo’s effortless combination of old-fashioned crooning vocals and contemporary rap and Clint Eastwood’s ridiculously catchy chorus. Albarn’s repeated lyric of “Something I’ve begun to fear is about to change its form, yeah yeah yeah it’s a shift in time but I won’t get tired at all” is equal parts catchy and provocative.
Humanz comes to its conclusion with ‘We Got The Power’, in all its baked camembert cheesy goodness. On first listen, the song itself and its message come off as incredibly corny, but does ultimately become genuinely uplifting. Something about a song featuring one-time-enemies Damon Albarn and Noel Gallagher telling the world to love each other makes me a bit gooey.
Overall, where does Humanz rank among Gorillaz records? It’s hard to say. As always, it’s very difficult to criticise the album’s musicianship, insofar as each track plainly comes from a source of genuine artistic creativity with an explicit point to make. There’s certainly something there for long-time fans of the band and its fictional foundations, but by taking a more sonically mainstream route it is not difficult to envisage new audiences discovering the joy of Gorillaz.
And yet, a part of me secretly admits that Humanz does not carry the gravitas of Demon Days or Plastic Beach. Time may play its part in that, but until then, Humanz stakes a claim as a worthy addition to the Gorillaz catalogue, but perhaps nothing more.