Gorillaz 2023

Gorillaz Push Boundaries on the Wildly Inventive ‘Cracker Island’

Gorillaz’s Cracker Island includes Stevie Nicks and reggaeton star Bad Bunny on an unrestrained set of dystopian songs with Damon Albarn’s melodic gift.

Cracker Island
Parlophone / Warner
24 February 2023

They’ve been making albums since 2001, but Gorillaz are exempt from falling into the same traps as other long-established and hugely successful bands. They’re like the Simpsons or the Toy Story characters, who can go on and on without getting old. They’re a cartoon band, and they don’t have to grow beards and go middle of the road or make earnest Bob Dylan cover albums. More importantly, they don’t have to go painfully leftfield and abandon tunes in favor of “high art” dirges full of jazz instruments, vintage pianos, and impenetrable lyrics.

That, at least, must be the thinking of Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett, who breathe new life into gap-toothed Gorillaz members 2-D, Murdoc, Noodle, and Russel on their eighth album, Cracker Island. The Blur singer and the sometime comic-book artist must also have memoed producer-drummer Remi Kabaka Jr to that effect, as well as singer Adeleye Omotayo, both now elite members of the Gorillaz camp. More than that, they’ve brought in Grammy Award-winning producer-songwriter Greg Kurstin to help keep things fresh, he of Adele, Sia, and Beck fame. Albarn and Hewlett have convinced all concerned that the virtual band they created over two decades ago continues to present endless sonic possibilities of the chart-busting kind.

They’re sure to convince the masses because Gorillaz follow the 2020 record Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez, and 2021 EP Meanwhile with an album that crackles with urgency, energy, and experimentation. They’re halfway there because they’ve already shared five of its songs since last April, with several more aired on the Gorillaz World Tour 2022. There’s plenty of evidence that Albarn is unmarked by time as a prolific melodicist of Paul McCartney-esque proportions but also a profoundly underrated singer. He’s more centerstage as a vocalist here than on other Gorillaz projects, and he’s supreme at undercutting these ten big tunes with his distinctive strain of shaky-voiced melancholy.

Being in such a fine voice, it’s forgivable that Albarn should deploy many of his usual array of Gorillaz guest artists as backing singers and harmonizers on Cracker Island rather than leads. This includes Thundercat, Beck, and even Stevie Nicks because they’re all perfectly placed to serve genre-bending songs. Their inclusion is also so surprising at times as to make you think Albarn might well have co-opted Leonard Cohen by now for a fun-filled support role in a Gorillaz number, had he lived. Or maybe Scott Walker. Or Kurt Cobain.

Along with the occasional rock legend, there’s a conceptual cohesiveness to Cracker Island that Song Machine lacked. This gives the listener a sense of penetrating a lurid future world of social breakdown, environmental collapse, and near-extinction for humankind. (Oh, actually, not that different from our present one!) The album is, we’re told, about a “group of musical misfits” relocating to Silverlake, California, as they “recruit new members to join the Last Cult in search of the one truth to fix the world”. It’s about “noodle compiling a handbook of wisdom and knowledge”, and “the sound of change and the chorus of the collective”. It’s about being “ready to step through the gateway” to a Cracker Island that is, apparently, “underwater”.

It’s very much a tongue-in-cheek narrative that unites Cracker Island and has been expanded upon on Twitter and various podcasts as a parody of Asimovian sci-fi, with a bit of Philip K. Dick and L. Ron Hubbard thrown in. It’s rather familiar to 2005’s acclaimed Demon Days and 2010’s Plastic Beach, too, if truth be told. But it hardly seems to matter when it’s an excuse to take the listener on a fantastical ten-track escapade through hip-hop, folk, pop, and reggaeton resulting from a unique concoction of international collaborators.

The opening title track, emerging out of a blaring siren, hurtles you into a dystopian whirlpool of seediness with its propulsive dance beats and immediate verse-chorus-verse attack. Albarn (2-D) sings of a “collective of the dawn” that’s planting seeds at night “to grow a made-up paradise”, while Thundercat lays down his funky six-string bass and eminently soulful backing vocals. The truth in this place may be “autotuned”, but there’s every sign we’ll have a lot of fun here.

Fun it most certainly is on “Oil” to hear the iconic Fleetwood Mac singer of “Gypsy” and “Sara” concern herself with “Interlocking cluster bombs.” Nicks lends her uniquely ethereal talents to this shimmering cosmic tune that’s all chiming synths, robotic vibes, and a “world found of faulty dreams”. It is fun to hear Albarn satirizing a “crack screen world” of social media in the R&B-flavored “Tired Influencer”. But not as much fun as soaking up the incandescent electronic loveliness of “Silent Running”, doubtless inspired by the 1972 sci-fi movie of the same name, in which the plant life of a (destroyed?) Earth is preserved in domes on cargo spaceships for future generations. It has the same epic quality as Duran Duran‘s synth-laden masterpiece “Save a Prayer”, with Omotayo adding weight to Albarn’s yearning for “for a new world” in the “waste of the sunrise”.

Away from 1980s-style synthpop, “New Gold” is a glorious hip-hop/funk collaboration featuring Australian psych band Tame Impala and West Coast rapper Bootie Brown. It’s where Albarn takes a rare backseat, while Brown prophesies doom in a “desolate city” prone to “polluted-filled skies” and people enslaved to cults, liposuction, and Twitter. Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker signals a possible way out on its dreamy chorus. This is ahead of “Tormenta”, the much-anticipated team-up with Peurto Rican reggaeton artist Bad Bunny. It’s worth the wait because it brilliantly alternates between a sweetly sung lullaby and bass-heavy Latin American hip-hop. Plus, there’s really nowhere else where a segue way into reggaeton would seem so seamless.

“Tormenta” is a high point, but the Cracker Island standouts are many, laden with surprises. The layered and wistful “Baby Queen” is a case in point. Who knew that a song concerning Albarn’s dream of the Queen of Thailand, who once attended a Blur gig back in the day, could be so moving? Who knew that a track that starts in full Simon and Garfunkel mode (“Skinny Ape”) could deliver a chilled electronic groove, a mournful chorus about human destiny in outer space, and a joyous EDM finale?

Then there’s “Possession Island”, the elegiac last number which harks back to Albarn’s more somber The Good, the Bad and the Queen project while featuring a tinkling piano motif and pretty Albarn/Beck harmonies that give way to an instrumental break straight out of a Spaghetti Western. Who knew an album so full of humor and energy could end in a poignant plea for redemption. “Should I ask you for forgiveness? And open my heart? If I say these words will you listen? / Or leave me here in the dark?”

This is all tantamount to saying that, yes, goddam it, Cracker Island is as good as Demon Days.

RATING 9 / 10