Damon Albarn has fucking lost his mind. Following on from his forays into Chinese and African music with the brilliant Monkey: Journey To The West and the Mali Music project, Albarn gives us Plastic Beach, which as an album is a bit of a fusion of these projects with what we’ve come to expect of Gorillaz, although it sounds like it was made by a schizophrenic porn composer who just got back from a round the world trip with nothing but a lot of synths. Seriously, some of these songs would not sound out of place being played over a money shot.
It’s a very brave album, don’t get me wrong. Albarn has taken a lot of risks and I have to give him credit for that, but I just somehow feel like he needed to spend more time making it more rigid and taut because compared to a lot of his previous work, it just sounds very lazy, like he didn’t really care about trying to make it sound as solid as possible. Maybe he meant for the album to have this sort of drunken swagger, which is nice at times, but it lacks those moments of stand up and shout glory. As a whole it’s got a bit of a background music in a trendy café vibe to it.
It does sort of have something for everybody: there are poppy hip hop tracks, wistful and contemplative synth driven ballads, challenging orchestral compositions and plenty of silliness, but this is the album’s problem. In finding something for everyone it’s lost the idea of everything for someone; the idea of an album you listen to as an artistic whole instead of a collection of different songs.
The reason why I think the album has come out sounding so soft is because of Albarn’s over reliance on synths. While on previous Gorillaz albums there has always been a dark undertone to the synths used, Plastic Beach attempts this sort of bright Caribbean feel, the result being that songs that could have sounded great with different backing came out sounding cheesey as all hell due to the overly poppy synth lines. Apparently this album is meant to be a collection of snapshots of where music is around the world, and as always with Gorillaz it’s a reflection of what Albarn likes in modern music. I think what the problem is, is that as bright synth pop has come back in vogue, it’s crept into the Gorillaz and sort of ruined them.
The real stars of the album are Bobby Womack and Sinfonia ViVa, whose penultimate track ‘Cloud Of Unknowing’ demonstrates a sense of determination and grace – exactly what was missing form so many of the other songs on the album. This song to me really sums up what Albarn was trying to do with this album in terms of challenging the boundaries of modern pop music, it’s just a shame that more of this sort of stuff didn’t make it on, with Albarn apparently recording masses of extra orchestral material that ended up getting wasted, presumably in favour of some of the uninspired and uselessly jammy synth songs that pepper the otherwise interesting surface of the album.
That’s sort of the album’s problem in a nutshell: it lacks integrity, it lacks grit and it lacks conviction. You know, I don’t see Damon Albarn rocking out in his studio to this album anywhere near as much as he would have been with Demon Days. Instead I see a man who’s in desperate need of money and a new direction.
Despite my views though it’s been copping praise from all angles with the usual troupe of sycophants hailing Albarn as a forward thinking pop genius, but I think if you listen to Plastic Beach against the band’s previous work, it’s plain to see that this album is Albarn’s most indulgent and poorly realised so far and in my opinion shows an artist who has already reached the zenith of his powers and is now just shuffling through obscure influences in an effort to keep things fresh.
What really lets the album down isn’t the lack of quality, it’s the presence of rubbish. Songs like the solo Gorillaz effort ‘On Melancholy Hill’, which sounds like the aborted foetus of MGMT and Coldplay’s unwanted love child, or ‘Rhinestone Eyes’, which has a plaintive whine to it that pretty much destroys the contrasting appeal of the bouncy ass beat drop about a minute into it. They just lack a certain degree of grip that Gorillaz used to have on their sound.
There are a few golden moments on this album. ‘Superfast Jellyfish’ featuring De La Soul and Super Furry Animals frontman Gruff Rhys is my favourite song on the album and is not surprisingly the most old-school sounding track. Switching seamlessly from the slick ryhmes of De La to the popalicious Gruff Rhys chorus, it sounds like candy tastes.
‘Empire Ants’ with Swedish based band Little Dragon’s frontwoman and guitarist contributing a stunning 90 house-esque vocal part comes in second for me, with it’s dreamy synths and driving melody really begging the question why the rest of the album couldn’t have the same presence and focus that it does.
The Mos Def driven ‘Sweepstakes’, also featuring The Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, kicks off the second half of the album, and is pretty much a slowly building Gorillaz take on a more modern and British hip hop sound, with grime and jungle influences creeping in around the more traditional beat-y U.S hip hop style of other Gorrilaz Albums.
‘Some Kind Of Nature’ featuring Lou Reed is a bit of a weird moment on the album but made glorious simply by the Lou Reed-ness of it all. It sounds very much like Transformer-era Lou, Albarn doffing his hat to Bowie both here and in the linear notes with singer 2D pictured sitting in a boat holding a signed copy of Hunky Dory, but it has a very modern, Albarn edge to it. Damon takes the chorus while Lou is cut up to fit in amongst the rest of the song, made to sound almost laughable really, with the whole thing coming off a bit like a silly joke.
Title track ‘Plastic Beach’, featuring Mick Jones and Paul Simonon playing together for the first time since The Clash might be the dark horse of the album, opening with a spaghetti western guitar intro before turning into a boppy little electro ragga, with Albarn singing “it’s a Casio on a Plastic Beach”, pretty much summing out the whole boozy holiday in the sun vibe the album’s been kicking around.
It’s a mixed bag, there’s no other way to say it, and the main problem seems to me to be not that the ideas are bad but that there are too many of them. What seems to have happened in my eyes is that with all these influences and musicians floating around, Albarn got a bit lost in it all and wasn’t able to really go over with the same fine tooth comb that had been passed over previous Gorillaz albums. When you consider that this is the first album that sees Albarn doing it on his own without a co-producer it makes more sense why it’s less polished and more crowded, and I can see why some people might like this better because it’s more direct, and more Blur-ish; more Albarn back in familiar territory but with vastly different ideas.
If you consider as a sort of collage of Damon Albarn’s conflicting influences the album makes more sense, while at the same time cheapening it for me. Despite all the dressing up they do with back story and animation, the album itself feels like nothing more than an excuse for Albarn to release whatever under ripened musical fruit has been clogging up his brain recently. Applaud if you wish but we all know this album could’ve been a helluva lot better.