Gorillaz release an absorbing if necessarily inconsistent travelogue album recorded during their 2010 tour.
Damon Albarn has always been a musician who shares a certain rapport with the musical zeitgeist of his time. Ever since his band Blur revitalized British pop with their 1993 album Modern Life Is Rubbish, he's gone above and beyond to innovate. Blur reinvented themselves once again on 1997's Blur, abandoning the '90s Britpop they helped pioneer for a more eclectic, more fragmented sound, and in 2001, Albarn took his biggest leap yet into the music of the future with an idiosyncratic and now-familiar new project, Gorillaz, which was soon honored by the Guinness Book of World Records as the Most Successful Virtual Band. Now, with The Fall, Gorillaz's latest release, Albarn rides another trend into the future; the album was recorded entirely on an iPad during the band's 2010 tour in support of Plastic Beach.
Each track is set in a different location, as many of the titles imply and the album notes make explicit. The listener follows the band from the East to the West Coast, tracing a course through the middle of the country from Montreal to Seattle. The iPad production and the ephemeral recording circumstances make the album something of a song-a-day project, and Gorillaz encourage that impression by including radio news clips and lyrics about various locales. "Oh Texas, can you hear me? / Speed up on the dawn / To the pinks and blues of Houston / In the sun," sings Albarn on "The Parish of Space Dust", which was recorded, obviously, in Houston. If the concept sounds a bit novel, Gorillaz have acknowledged as much -- The Fall was originally released to fan club members last Christmas, and it's streaming free at the band's website.
The music, composed mostly of slow-paced hip hop beats with or without vocals, has the fluid impressionism you might expect from a travelogue. Tracks like "Phoner to Arizona", "Shy-Town" and "Amarillo" plod forward with the soothing aimlessness of a long bus ride. Some are mere sketches, like the delightful "Aspen Forest", and all give the impression of playful, impulsive work-shopping. It's much looser than Plastic Beach, but The Fall shares the latter's sense of flat immediacy. The driving forces behind the music are the luxurious textures and deceptively simple rhythms, not the lackadaisical vocals or barely intelligible lyrics. In other words, The Fall is a more fleeting and less consistent version of what Gorillaz has done all along, subordinating the meaning of the music to the sound and feel of its creation.
In form as well as content, The Fall is more like a pet project than a full-fledged release. Gorillaz is not the first band to make a meandering travelogue record, and their contribution can hardly stand up to giants of the genre like the KLF's Chill Out. Even so, there are still enough surprises and enough subtleties to make The Fall an absorbing listen. At the very least, it's a musical day-in-the-life of one of the strangest, most inventive bands in music, and you can't argue with that. You can always trust Albarn to have his eye on the bigger picture, though, and as a statement, The Fall is much more than a passing fancy. It may have been conceived and executed on the inspiration of the moment, but it's also testimony to the growing capabilities of portable devices like the iPad and the potentially renewed appeal of a concept album in an industry unmanned by technological progress. Once again, Albarn may be onto something.