“If you watch MTV for too long, it’s a bit like hell – there’s nothing of substance there. So we got this idea for a cartoon band, something that would be a comment on that.” Jamie Hewlitt, Gorillaz.
Though the Gorillaz have been highly commercially successful, their thematic roots have been ignored by many. The Gorillaz’ third album takes the concept of an unreal, feel-good, consumer-driven culture that is shiny and colourful but devoid of real content to new heights, and is set in the fictional universe of the Plastic Beach.
The world of the Plastic Beach is artificial to the core; a junkyard dystopia at the end of the earth dominated by the shadows of factories, sheets of acid rain and permanent shrouds of smog, where ‘the sea is radioactive’ and all light is neon. It depicts a man-made disaster zone where consumerism is fanatical and industrialisation uncurbed – a society much like our own. The track Rhinestone Eyes paints this picture most vividly, portraying the Plastic Beach as a pile of landfill where ‘nature’s corrupted in factories far away’, and everything that seems natural is revealed as illusory. Layer upon layer of synthetic chords, bleeps and whirs create a world where plastic people are divorced from the environment and from themselves. Sandwiched between these electronic layers are collaborations with the Syrian National Orchestra for Arabic Music, Lou Reed, De La Soul, and Paul Simonon and Mick Jones of punk group The Clash to create a musically and globally diverse album.
Superfast Jellyfish takes a sarcastic look at the insatiable nature of contemporary fastfood lifestyle, sampling an advertisement that impossibly boasts, ‘this morning, you’ve got time / for a hot, home-cooked breakfast /delicious and piping hot / in only 3 microwave minutes’. This irony is echoed in the track Pirate Jet, where Damon Albarn drawls ‘It’s all good news now / because we left the taps running / for a hundred years / so drink into the drink / a plastic cup of drink.’
The album bursts with pure pop melodies muddied with a churning undertow of anxiety and decay. Plastic Beach conjures fluorescent images of social and ecological turmoil – it reminds us of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the ongoing ripples from the Global Financial Crisis, and warns of a world in terminal decline, where ‘the whole world is crashing down…falling alcohol empire is here to hold you, rolling out and haunted till it sinks’.
But it speaks of hope too. The track ‘Welcome to the World of the Plastic Beach’ is a call to action: ‘The revolution will be televised / and the pollution from the ocean / now with devotion / push peace and keep it in motion // Kids, gather round / Yeah, I need your focus / I know it seems like the world is so hopeless / It’s like wonderland.’
Just as many science fiction films and novels take an element of present day society, extrapolate it, exaggerate it and recontextualise it in an imagined future society in order to make a comment on the world today, Plastic Beach amplifies many common sentiments about the state of the environment, the culture of greed and the sense of alienation and anxiety that overshadow contemporary life.
Tickets for the Escape to the Plastic Beach tour are on sale now.