A musical, circus stage show based on a 16th century Chinese novel about a monkey who dreamed of being a god? Damon Albarn must have something to do with it. But stripped of the fancy visuals, the music is left wanting.
Those Gorillaz have returned in the guise of a completely different primate. This one comes complete with a tale and a fully furred opera in tow. Who would have thought that Damon Albarn had an opera in him? In fairness, it is not strictly speaking an opera. It is a spectacle theatre piece that has more in common with Cirque du Soleil than Glyndebourne. Albarn and fellow gorilla Jamie Hewlett have created a nine-scene show that is a mixture of acrobatics, kung fu, lush sets, and the music contained on this recording. This stage production has proved to be quite popular in the United Kingdom. The dear old BBC adapted a track, complete with a specially made Jamie Hewlett animation, to promote their coverage of the Beijing Olympics. Furthermore, tickets soon go on sale for a special run at the O2 "Millennium" Dome, just like Prince. Things are looking good.
The show is wholly inspired by a 16th century Chinese novel by Wu Cheng'en. His book was made famous to every British schoolboy in the late 1970s by a live action version called Monkey that was made in Japanese but dubbed into English by the BBC. It was required viewing in those days, and most 40-year old children still have a soft spot for it in their hearts, I'm sure. Hence Albarn's interest; hence the show's popularity.
So much for the stage show, what about the record? Journey to the West the album is confusingly a "soundtrack" based upon, but not a direct recording of, the musical. Quite how that makes it a soundtrack is beyond me. It is a compilation of 22 vignettes that presumably evoke a scene in the stage production, most of which clock in at around the two-minute mark. The tracks don't quite stand up on their own, unsupported by the spectacle of the 70 Chinese acrobats and martial artists cavorting on sets designed by the creator of Tank Girl. But as with everything, there are exceptions to this sweeping generalization.
The brevity of the songs may cause consternation, but is often a blessing. Some of the tracks on this release are almost painful to listen to. "Confessions of a Pig" springs to mind with its guttural vocal littered with glottal stops. It sounds as if this particular pig smoked 40 cigarettes a day. "The White Skeleton Demon" starts off like Mussorgsky and ends up like the shower scene in Psycho. Soundtrack recordings are designed to partner the visuals, whether they are film or theatre soundtracks. Without the visual aspect there is a dimension missing.
"Heavenly Beach Banquet" and "Monkey Bee" are the tracks that would be considered "songs" in a parallel world where Damon Albarn wasn't trying to destroy every last centimetre of cool that he once had. There once was a time that this boy from Leytonstone could do no wrong musically, but now he works really hard to erode the pop icon status that the media awarded him. A fictitious simian pop band here, a world music record there, and add a dash of supergroup with no name for good measure. Who needs fame when he's got art? With this recording he is clearly at it again. After the ten or so listens I have given this recording, I am still hard pressed to think of an occasion when I would willingly play it. Unless you have actually seen the show, this record makes no musical sense.
The cynical among you (I know you are out there) would probably describe this as a cash-in release. It's a souvenir record that amounts to little more than an audible programme that affords you the pleasure of reliving the event in the leisure of your own home. Safe in the comfort of your own surroundings, you can pause the tunes while you take a bathroom break, instead of holding it in for fear of missing something. At home, you can skip the stuff you don't like, instead of stifling a yawn in order not to appear uncultured. At home you can file the thing away, leave it there, and put its purchase down to experience.
How this album will fare in parts of the world where it is impossible to see the show is uncertain, of course. Perhaps it will act as a prelude in these territories, albeit one that may scare off some punters. I will wager that fans of Blur will buy this regardless and enjoy it whether they like it or not. Other pop fans are more likely to see through the emperor's new clothes and call this for what it is: mostly weak but with a couple of monkey magic moments.