Damon Albarn is living his best life. The Hardest Working Man in Music has in the past year alone released a new solo album, The Nearer the Fountain, More Pure the Stream Flows, toured more than 25 cities worldwide, and grown his mullet even thicker. (The answer to the question “what do we think about it?” is “this is none of our business.”) He was mistaken for Billy Eilish’s dad on stage at Coachella, where the young superstar introduced him as her greatest role model and inspiration. He’s also reformed his and Jamie Hewlett’s “cartoon band” Gorillaz for a world tour with no less than 55 dates.
The project, which predates the tour we are witnessing this year, may be the band’s, possibly any band’s, most ambitious yet. Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez (2020), Gorillaz’ most elaborate Gesamtkunstwerk to date, is a music video web series released throughout 2020 in nine episodes. New tunes were accompanied by skits and interviews with the many album guests by the virtual band members. It was a greatly audacious, not to mention innovative way to release music and multimedia.
Expectedly, the reviews from both critics and fans were rave. On top of being seemingly endlessly capable of creating new works, Albarn is, almost magically, also capable of endlessly creating good music. The man who once composed an entire (decent) album on his iPad, he, as Gorillaz’ musical mastermind, still effortlessly delivers disparate hits teeming with complexity. Gorillaz’ radio-friendly songs always sound fresh, even decades on. Having fans rally to hear the new stuff when you have a staggering backlog of legendary tunes is a prime testament to this band’s quality.
Albarn is fully at ease with himself and incredibly laid back in public. Always keen on chatting and posing with the fans, smiling all the while, as a celebrity he is widely adored. Live audiences especially know and feel this good vibe, making Gorillaz’ concerts a uniquely joyous experience and a feverish party. Happy to take the backseat and let the many diverse guest performers take center stage, he still commands the crowds throughout the performance with his disarming enthusiasm.
On 24 June, Berlin is hotter than usual and it’s a merciful coincidence that the concert is taking place at Wuhlheide, an open-air amphitheater amid trees and parks on the city’s periphery. It’s still 32 °C as we arrive too late to enjoy opening acts Moonchild Sanelly and Lous and the Yakuza; it’s a workday, after all, so any early arrival is challenging. About 30 minutes before the show there are already around 15,000 people present. It’s a well-sized audience relative to the venue’s maximum capacity of 17,000, a bonus being that you don’t have to unwillingly rub your sweaty body against someone else’s.
A great thing about Wuhlheide is the scope of food and beverages offered. I am grateful for being able to get crepes with Nutella and juice for dinner. Here I’m not the only one. There are many children aged 6-12 around, and just as many adolescents, most of whom are cueing to get sweets. On my stand alone there are six young boys, accompanied by parents, all wearing Gorillaz t-shirts. At second glance, there are folks of all ages and profiles – colorfully dressed students, more or less hipster young professionals, definitely more hip 30-something couples and singles, along with many more relaxed 40-and-50-somethings. (Some of these people were young adults when Gorillaz first came to prominence, it was that long ago). The age difference between the youngest and the oldest core audience is over 50 years. The unprecedentedly broad appeal is the axle of Gorillaz’ ethos; this band is carefully designed to offer something for everyone, though it is at its most rewarding if you are willing to dig below the cartoonish surface.
The “everyone” in question screams uncontrollably as the many images of a decaying televised reality we inhabit rotate during “The Static Channel” introduction. Accompanied by a dozen instrumentalists and back vocals, dressed in blindingly neon pink head to toe, with a black graffiti reading “Gorillaz” sprayed on his t-shirt, Albarn languidly strolls on stage. He’s wearing a goofy grin, revealing his golden incisor, and the front rows go berserk. A fan puts up a sign, begging him to – draw her next tattoo (?!?!?) – and he merrily obliges, drawing badly a silhouette of a cat on her arm and writing “I’m not very original, I know”. This candid relationship with the fans accounts for a good percentage of the show’s success, as he keeps descending into the crowd, talking to people and beckoning them to dance. They always comply.
The main part of any Gorillaz’ show’s success, however, is the synthesis between the music and the cartoons on the big screen behind the band. The tunes would work well even without the visuals, but paying close attention to both allows one to see the deeper meaning of this artistic expression. Though often flippant, the many drawn sequences are telling of the emotional depth of the content, which is, counterintuitively, at times profoundly sorrowful. We will unpack layers of this sadness and concern as the performance goes on – all while dancing fervently.
The show kicks off with the kraut-rock amplified “M1A1”, a garage, punkish tune that could have easily been an outtake from Blur’s eponymous album. As the record on playback shouts, “Hello? Is anyone there?”, the masses shout back, ready to party. Remember, sorrow or no sorrow, social activism or perfunctory enjoyment, this is a band that makes it easy and desirable to relax and just surrender yourself to enjoyment. It is all the more powerful for being able to juggle this thematic and semantic mix.
“Strange Timez”, the titular track from the latest release and one of many new songs we’ve wanted to hear live, is an electro-dance banger featuring Robert Smith, who, while singing the chorus, is shown as a face across the Moon in the video montage. (This sequence is reminiscent of the montage of the Moon in The Mighty Boosh, a phenomenal cult British comedy from the late ’90s and early ’00s). Many of the crowd from the stands run down to the standing area, which is soon packed and engaging in a sort of dance fever. All the while, Albarn hums over his push-to-talk microphone, whispering despondently: “Cutting glass with scissors, whilst the great leader’s reclining, In golden hallways where we spin, the faithful will be silent.” Strange times indeed.
Keen to pose metaphysical questions to the audience, Albarn continues with “Last Living Souls”, the vocal opener off their gargantuan 2005 LP Demon Dayz. “Are we the last living souls?” he beckons over and over and ever louder, as the crowd sings and waits for the massive electro dub ripple to break out. Thematically, “Demon Dayz” is about a (physical) journey through the night and pondering difficult questions about life and its meaning. The most introspective of all their releases, it will produce the most songs (a total of six) during this set and account for most of the more somber and reflective moments.
Luckily, the people on stage are experienced enough to know how to create a well-flowing setlist, so the heart-wrenching, albeit dance-friendly tunes are accompanied by more upbeat singles. “Tranz” is a literal invitation to dance (forever) and laugh in the face of loneliness, while “Aries”, taken off Song Machine: Season One and featuring ex-New Order’s Peter Hook is a tender homage to the legendary band Hook co-founded This imaginative composing is perhaps the best quality of Gorillaz’ latest, since every song featuring a prominent guest constructs a musical homage to the guest’s sound aesthetic.
“Tomorrow Comes Today” is one of the band’s early gems with a strong triphop influence, where Albarn sings in his drawled melancholy way, just as he would in Blur or one of his other groups. He’s not much of a singer – he knows this and is fully comfortable with the truth – but he possesses one of the most mournful and instantly recognizable voices in the world, a deeply solemn baritone that would give the likes of Thom Yorke a run for their money. “Don’t think I’m all in this world, I don’t think I’ll be here too long,” he repeats slowly as the people gently swing from side to side.
As said, one can absolutely enjoy Gorillaz as a spectacularly diverse electro-dance-cum-indie band whose contributions to the visibility of world music in the occidental mainstream have been immense, but it’s difficult to appreciate the meaning of the works fully without understanding the intention behind the cartoon characters. The four fictional “band members”, 2D, Murdoc, Russel, and Noodle, are more than just darkly comical visuals catchy to the eye; in essence, they are a representation of outraged and dejected members of the global working class, doing their best to survive in an increasingly hostile world.
From the nihilistic postmodernism of Gorillaz and the cautious soul-searching of Demon Dayz, the world of Gorillaz fully collapsed with 2010’s Plastic Beach, a vision of a post-apocalyptic planet that floats in garbage. The teenage avatar Noodle acts in militant resistance against the forces that made the world so. This iconography of social anxiety persists to this day – the visuals for “Pirate Jet” are documentary takes showing the horrendous decline of sea mammals due to overfishing as Albarn sings about “the plastic creating people”. The very poster for this tour features the band posing in front of Trellick Tower, a famed social housing high rise that in the ’80s became a symbol of communal decay. It also served as inspiration for J. G. Ballard’s seminal novel High Rise (1975).
The symbolism is sometimes relatively discreet, but mostly it’s fully on the nose, to astounding effect. The videos for “El Mañana” and “On Melancholy Hill”, shown in their entirety on the gigantic screen behind the band, depict the fallout in this decrepit world, in which band members’ avatars combat various ominous forces and attempt to stay alive. Of course, all of the above warrants a much deeper discussion; besides, you can choose to ignore all this, at least temporarily, and simply have a damn good time. These famed music videos have been around for over a decade and yet they do not deter from the overall positive atmosphere among the attendees.
Sure enough, there are some genuinely festive bangers, such as “19-2000” and especially the killer “With Love to an Ex”, sang partially by Moonchild Sanelly. Classifying herself as “future ghetto punk” the South African performer keeps spitting insults to wannabe dates in “Xhosa”, while the crowd swaggers aggressively, accompanying the heavy beats. All the while, the key lyrics in “Xhosa” are spelled on the screen; an absolute champion of inclusivity and musical diversity, Albarn has always taken special care to empower all his guest collaborators to perform in the way they see fit and shine in their varied origins and approaches to music. It is just another example of the power of his artistic expression, which is unparalleled in its complexity and ambition (Hewlett, after all, doesn’t compose).
“Kids With Guns” and “Dirty Harry”, both singles off Demon Dayz, with intense backdrops of various types of firearms and a children’s choir singing “I need a gun…”, are a kick to the stomach, considering the number of school shootings in the US. The anti-violence messages are clear, but what can a pop band really do except provoke people to dance some more in an act of cognitive dissonance?
The final batch of songs is the most singalong-friendly. “Momentary Bliss”, another solid tune off their latest, features caustic lyrics by the English punk duo Slaves (on playback), who tower over the crowd menacingly from the screen. The last song of the main set is “Plastic Beach”, which takes on an almost funky feel with the many band members singing and Albarn picking up a guitar himself. More visuals from the album’s gloomy videos ensue, but it doesn’t matter – the crowd is on fire, and there is so much dust from dancing in the air it’s becoming harder to breathe in the pit.
The four-song encore starts off slowly with “The Pink Phantom”, featuring Albarn on piano, with Elton John and 6LACK doing most of the singing. It’s a poignant ballad fully in Elton’s style and the last gentle tune of the night. Unsurprisingly, the end is saved for “Stylo”, “Feel Good Inc.” and “Clint Eastwood”, the band’s greatest hits, of which the last two prompt the majority to scream and sing along throughout. “Clint Eastwood” appropriately ends with an extended EDM-reggae remix that pushes us into a frenzy as Albarn jumps up and down with the crowd.
It doesn’t matter that “Feel Good Inc.” is a deeply ironic title, nor is anyone bothered to hear the chorus of “Clint Eastwood” starts with the verse, “I ain’t happy – I’m feeling glad”. (That’s still way more positive than most Gorillaz’ lyrics.) All of us are sweaty, many are quite drunk, and our bodies are sore from jumping and vibing. Modern life is rubbish and the world might really be ending in some respects, but, as “Dirty Harry” says, all we want to do is dance. Tonight, many generations are grateful Damon Albarn and his many collaborators are all too happy to indulge us.
The North American leg of Gorillaz’ current tour will commence on 11 September in Vancouver, Canada.