A band made up entirely of cartoon characters. That might be the quickest way to describe Gorillaz to anyone who happened to be living under a rock in the early to mid-2000s, but it doesn’t quite tell the whole story. Novelty alone can’t account for the project’s phenomenal and completely unexpected success and staying power after the release of its first album in 2001. Gorillaz saw a fake band that began as a parody of the vapidity of pop music become a runaway pop icon in its own right.
When it was conceived by musician Damon Albarn and cartoonist Jamie Hewlett, Gorillaz seemed unlikely to amount to much more than a gimmick, a one-off parody of the artificiality of mainstream pop music, but it turned out to be the perfect vehicle for its co-creators to turn out catchy, genre-blurring, endlessly listenable hits like “Clint Eastwood” and “Feel Good, Inc.”
Without prior knowledge or a bit of digging, all we would see and hear would be the finished product — songs that cop influences and talent from pop, hip hop, rock, and soul, all sung by animated characters who seem to exist to be projected upon. Gorillaz’s success may well say something about the power of fictional characters to take on lives of their own, but more immediately, the fictional musicians give the whole project a feeling of continuity.
Given Albarn and Hewlett’s chaotic creative process and their habit of bringing on a new host of talent with each successive release, it’s hard to imagine them ever achieving the same notoriety under their own names as they have with their made-up band.
Humanz (★★) preserves much of the cynically joyful ethos of the first three albums, albeit with some notably darker undertones. Having emerged from a seven-year hiatus into a more fractured and uncertain world, Gorillaz have accordingly made a conceptual leap from warning of a coming dystopia to asking what it means to live in the dystopian world that, in their minds, has already arrived.
What exactly is supposed to make our modern world so dystopian is difficult to say. As always, Gorillaz are less interested in pondering existential questions or laying out a manifesto than they are in just having a good time. Humanz accordingly finds itself somewhere between the hedonistic and the hopelessly grim. A dance party for the end of the world.
That’s the vision, anyway. In practice, muttered vocals, deep synths and heavy drumbeats make this album more dystopia than dance, its sense of fun taking a back seat to a murky sense of impending doom. Humanz is also broken up by a few perplexing interludes that seem to serve little purpose other than lending a veneer of continuity to an otherwise chaotic album — but in practice, they end up breaking up what flow it has.
Humanz does feature an impressive number of collaborations with both well-known and up-and-coming artists, ranging from Noel Gallagher to Vince Staples to De La Soul. Unfortunately, these contributors are largely wasted, subsumed under excessive production and lack of clarity. With a few exceptions, they do not seem to have fully thought through what they wanted out of them. “Charger” is the worst offender here, giving Grace Jones just a handful of muted lines on a low-energy track dominated by Albarn’s own vocals.
It’s frustrating and just a little puzzling that the album suffers most from an excess of Albarn. In fairness, without his vocals it wouldn’t be a Gorillaz album so much as a playlist produced by Gorillaz — although this alone is probably a sign that Albarn and Hewlett should have rethought a few things.
Fortunately, there are also plenty of genuinely interesting moments that stand out on an otherwise fairly bland and aimless record. “Ascension” is a solid, high-energy opener, while “Andromeda” and lead single “Saturnz Barz” are particular highlights, not least because they actually sound like Gorillaz songs. These tracks are an example of Gorillaz at their best, somehow feeling unexpected, bizarre and completely natural all at once, springing not from some grand creative vision, but instead from someone saying, “Wouldn’t it be neat if…”
Gorillaz provides a sandbox for Albarn and Hewlett to create, play, experiment, and indulge their curiosity. Judged against that standard, however, Humanz comes up short. Especially considering it came from a band that can be whatever its creators want it to be, the album feels like a collection of missed opportunities interspersed with moments of interest. We’re left unsure what exactly they’re trying to say or do, either because Albarn won’t tell us or because he himself doesn’t know. There is a definite lack of focus, but lack of ambition or vision might be the bigger problems. Whatever the case, Humanz is backed up by enough talent and features enough interesting moments to make it worth a listen, but it falls frustratingly short of what it could have been.
Humanz is available for download via Amazon.com and iTunes and through streaming services.
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