‘I’m making this album the most pop record I’ve ever made,’ Damon Albarn explained in November 2009. Coming from the man who penned Blur’s ‘Country House’, these are potentially dangerous words. Gorillaz may be one of the most forward-thinking outfits of the last 15 years, but it’s still an Albarn project and, as such, has the potential to disappear up its own Tin Pan Alley at any given moment.
There’s no escaping the fact he’s a fascinating musician, and much is made of him being his generation’s answer to the chameleonic David Bowie. He spent his twenties ‘Blurring’ from psychedelic Syd Barrett wannabe (Leisure) to Kinks disciple (the Life trilogy) to American garage band protagonist (Blur) to love-wounded art rocker (13); all that before Gorillaz had even risen for breakfast. Since the birth of his monkey creation, he’s also been the modern-day Peter Gabriel (Mali Music), sinister doomsayer (The Good, the Bad and the Queen) and a cross-cultural court composer (Monkey: Journey to the West).
Now in his early forties, he’s returning to the troop with Plastic Beach, Gorillaz’ highly anticipated third album. He’s in a peculiar position, too. For most bands, the sticky third album is make-or-break time; consolidate and build or prove yourself spent. Albarn’s sticky third was the hugely successful Parklife. His latest Gorillaz piece is actually his stumbling fifteenth. At least he’s not facing it alone. His latest disparate posse includes Lou Reed, Snoop Dogg, Mark E Smith and Bobby Womack, each giving voice to Albarn’s latest bugbears, the cult of celebrity and voyeurism. You may well wonder how any of this could fit in with his ‘most pop record’ comment.
In fact, it’s not until the third track that it starts living up to his pop promise. ‘White Flag’, is a hit single waiting to happen, dragging you out of the doldrums (the first two tracks are worryingly average) and slapping you about the features with its wild intent. Kano and Bashy are the star guests, but it’s the Lebanese National Orchestra for Oriental Arabic Music that really shines. It’s a wonderfully realised track, bringing together every aspect of Albarn’s journey so far and reminding us that we’re in the presence of real imagination. Somewhere in the background, the Gallagher brothers interfere with a Gibson ES 335 and trip over their lolling tongues.
Things are equally spectacular on ‘Superfast Jellyfish’, his long-awaited collaboration with Gruff Rhys. It’s a pop triumph in the Super Furry vein (think ‘Inaugural Trams’ from SFA’s last album, rather than crass Blur slapstick) and promises to be the sound of the summer, if they can bear to hold it back for that long. Similar things could be said for the album’s title tune ‘Plastic Beach’ (featuring Mick Jones and Paul Simonon, who delivers a wonderfully Clash-lite bassline) and ‘To Binge’ (featuring Little Dragon). But that’s where the pop stops.
Albarn has always done dislocation well, and it lingers heavily throughout Plastic Beach as he laments ‘plasma screens we keep switched on through the night’ (‘Broken’) and recalls ‘your rhinestone eyes... like factories far away’ (‘Rhinestone Eyes’). Thematically, these songs seem to be a continuation of The Good the Bad and the Queen and possibly even Blur’s last album, Think Tank, in which case, he’s been ‘gently out of time’ for the best part of a decade. If it’s a situation that inspires work this poignant, let’s hope he stays that way.
Of course, being an Albarn album, Plastic Beach was never likely to be flawless. Filler might be too strong a word, but certain songs feel, at best, like wasted opportunities. Mark E Smith’s appearance on ‘Glitter Freeze’ (imagine the Glitter Band on synths) could have been so much more – as it is, it’s only mildly amusing. Elsewhere, Bobby Womack is used in the same way Massive Attack use Horace Andy, but it only really works on the Bill Withers-esque ‘Stylo’ (presumably Bill Withers was unavailable) where he’s allowed to soulfully wail long and hard.
As a producer, Albarn keeps the whole thing typically retro. He’s never sounded so ’80s and, for this reviewer, the effect starts to become wearisome. The screeching, ‘Thriller’-style keyboards may have worked for MJ, but they only really induce a headache here. There was a time when Albarn was the undisputed king of British indie, but on this evidence – 15 albums in – the pop throne remains tantalisingly out of reach.
Plastic Beach in stores from the first week of March.
Image by Jamie Hewlett.