The Gorillaz project is now 20 years old and still expanding. It almost feels wrong to call it a “project”, given the Gorillaz discography is very nearly as voluminous as that of Damon Albarn’s supposedly main band Blur: it is definitely a lot more than just a side interest. But neither is Gorillaz a band in any standard sense; it remains a nebulous, constantly shifting identity into which Albarn and visual artist Jamie Hewlett rope in all manner of other talents.
The new album represents a whole major step up in this come-one-come-all approach. It’s worth taking a deep breath and listing the whole cast list just to get a real sense of how much is going on here. On the full 17-track deluxe edition version of the album (and n.b. it is well worth going the whole hog, rather than going for the edited down standard version) you’ll hear: revered veterans Elton John, Beck, Leee John, Peter Hook and Robert Smith of The Cure; current alt-rock stalwarts Slaves, slowthai, St Vincent, Joan As Police Woman and Unknown Mortal Orchestra; U.K. rap stars Kano, Skepta and Octavian and their US counterparts ScHoolboy Q, 6LACK, JPEGMAFIA, Goldlink and EARTHGANG; Malian diva Fatoumata Diawara; English singer-songwriters Roxani Arias and Georgia; South African “future ghetto punk” singer-poet Moonchild Sanelly; Japanese all-female band CHAI; and the late Nigerian Afrobeat drumming legend Tony Allen.
Even by Gorillaz standards, this is a crowd; the most brilliant achievement of the record is that it doesn’t sound like it. It doesn’t sound like a variety show or a set of phoned-in guest spots: it sounds like an album. Indeed, Albarn’s brilliance for corralling unlikely voices and styles together makes this so coherent that you may find yourself wondering – in this age of remote recording and an ever more internationalist cultural landscape – why this isn’t more common. Not necessarily the number or the prominence of the guests, but the stylistic variation, the fluidity, the internationalism, and the complete sloughing off of the constraints of the band format.
The juxtapositions can be really remarkable. 6LACK’s ultra-synthetic autotuned vocals merging into Albarn’s detached murmur and Elton John strangely channelling Bowie’s most high camp preposterousness as musical theatre strings swoop around them on “The Pink Phantom” is truly like nothing else you will hear this year. JPEGMAFIA’s equally futuristic rap vocal sounds more alien than ever in the electro-pop funk kitsch of “MLS” with CHAI’s Japanese vocals weaving into it, and some unexpected roaring and guitar noise. Robert Smith, opening the album, is in fine voice surrounded by marimbas and an electric dance groove. It’s all rounded off by Skepta – who is from a Nigerian family – sounding entirely natural and authoritative riding Tony Allen’s rolling drum patterns together with high drama sixties movie soundtrack strings and horns. Altogether, it feels brilliantly like a trip through a world in uproar.
There is one issue, though – and this is common to Gorillaz’ output right back to their debut single “Clint Eastwood” – which is both a blessing and a curse: a lack of rhythmic sophistication. All too often, even with some of the most accomplished vocalists and some incredibly inventive instrumentation and production, the beats tend to fairly clunking, squared off, standard indie-dance patterns. In one sense, this helps provide some cohesion, but many of the album’s high points are when the beats become more inventive as with Tony Allen’s drumming, the electronic patterns of “MLS”, or best of all the absolutely beautiful “Opium”.
On “Opium”, there’s the kind of rhythmic lightness of touch you’ll often hear in Albarn’s Africa Express projects combined with Chemical Brothers-like arena-rave dynamics, with EARTHGANG’s melodic rap flows dancing through it all. It feels both ancient and futurist, huge yet light on its feet, and unbelievably euphoric, and it can spark pangs of thinking about what Albarn might achieve if he welcomed in as much outside talent into groove building as he does vocals, arrangement and instrumentation.
That is very much a “what if” though: it certainly doesn’t spoil appreciation of where Albarn’s staggering ambition has brought him already, just hints at how much further he could still go. This is, all in all, a mighty album, and a challenge to the rest of the music world to escape its constraints and look well beyond its usual horizons.
Cover image: Jamie Hewlett / Parlophone Records
Writer | Joe Muggs
Joe Muggs is a writer, DJ and curator of many years standing, covering both mainstream and underground. His book 'Bass, Mids, Tops', covering decades of U.K. bass music, is out now via Strange Attractor / MIT Press, and you can subscribe to his newsletter at tinyletter.com/joemuggs