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. After all, who could imagine two of the decade’s most epochal singles featuring De La Soul and Shaun Ryder from the Happy Mondays that work as well in the club and in the suburban minivan? Plastic Beach (2010) continued this cultural reflection through its widescreen, spacious production, meme-worthy videos, and collaborative aesthetic that didn’t so much feel like an album but like a music festival that you could experience privately in headphones.
While the communal spirit of Demon Days and Plastic Beach found light in the darkness, Gorillaz’ fifth album Humanz, feels dour, cloistered, and anxious. Albarn has stated that he told his guests to imagine a party at the end of the world after Donald Trump has won the 2016 Presidential Election. Well, we all know how that turned out. Albarn has since said that he’s removed any reference of Trump from the album so that he would not give the most famous man on earth any more publicity.
The lack of superficial reference to Trump does little to undermine the claustrophobic state of the album, which rarely delivers ear-candy like “19-2000” or “Empire Ants”. Instead, Humanz presents a fractured synth-heavy sound that’s reminiscent at times of Prince’s more minimal efforts in the mid-‘80s with equal doses of Detroit techno and Albarn’s ever-melancholy pop courtesy of co-producers The Twilite Tone and Remi Kabaka.
The album starts strong, with the urgent standout “Ascension” featuring Vince Staples. Like Staples’s collab with Clams Casino “All Nite” from last year, “Ascension” is another loosie that stands up as one of the best tracks he’s has recorded. It’s also one of the most off-brand and successful tracks in the Gorillaz catalog. Check this choice lyric about America, land of the free: “Where you can live your dreams as long as you don’t look like me / Be a puppet on a string, hanging from a fucking tree.”
The trauma of living with racism continues in the other hip-hop collaborations like “Let Me Out” with Pusha T and Mavis Staples. At one point, Pusha, a rapper who’s not usually confessional, turns to his mother and says, “Tell me that I won’t die at the hands of the police / Promise me I won’t outlive my nephew and niece.” Danny Brown’s verse on the excellent Kelela-led “Submission” puts his cartoony warble in service of painfully existential lyrics. Even the usually mirthful De La Soul makes an uneasy, but buoyant return on “Momentz”, which is about reliving moments rather than being present in the current one.
This sense of pervading sadness and weight continues throughout the album. “Andromeda” and “Busted and Blue”, which were composed after the passing of his partner’s mother and his collaborator, Bobby Womack, are two of Albarn’s latest sad-gems. “Andromeda” pushes a pastel synth against Albarn’s weathered voice on top of a lithe beat. It stands out as one of the best songs on the album as it updates the Gorillaz aesthetic with new adornments while still delivering pop goods.
“Busted and Blue” is one of the albums few ballads, with Albarn and Kelela cooing lyrics that use distant satellites as a metaphor for being removed from your own life by grief. Its spacey production physicalizes this by making us feel that we’re not so much orbiting the Earth from space, but looking back at distant memories that feel like they’re galaxies away.
Like previous Gorillaz efforts, Albarn continues to get the most out of many of his collaborators. Kelela continues her development into one of the more distinctive and emotive singers of recent memory with her contributions. Peven Everett and Popcaan both do strongly in their efforts, but Benjamin Clementine steals the spotlight late in the album with the excellent “Hallelujah Money”. That track features Clementine’s strange, throaty vibratto, resulting in one of the albums best guest spots. Albarn’s ever-curious nature sometimes gets the best of him, though, like on songs like “Charger” featuring Grace Jones or “Carnival” with Anthony Hamilton that don’t quite feel like they are ready for primetime just yet.
Pop music has long been ageist in its predilections and prone to a flavor-of-the-week manufacturing system that throws many artists out after a single or two. Albarn has proven to be a rare evergreen artist who’s capable of staging a compelling second act and continues to create relevant music after 27 years in the business. Humanz is another strong entry in Albarn’s lengthy and brilliant catalog. At its best, it doubles down on what Albarn has done right all along, while also pointing toward many new directions that he can take going forward.