Gorillaz, The Guinness Book of World Record’s most successful virtual band, is back from a seven year hiatus with a new album, Humanz. Born as the side-project of Blur’s frontman Damon Albarn, Gorillaz was intended to be an outlet for Albarn’s more experimental whims, a musical project meant to give him space from Blur’s inescapably recognizable “Woo-hoo.” With the help of Jamie Hewlett, the co-creator of Tank Girl, an absurdist comic book about a girl who lives in a tank with her mutant kangaroo boyfriend, Gorillaz materialized out of the ether into a cartoon form. The cartoon musicians all have backstories to enhance the band’s mythology, helping to flesh out their holographic projections, which have performed at Gorillaz shows in lieu of blood-and-bones human beings. Gifting the world with irrefutable jams like, “Clint Eastwood” and “Feel Good Inc,” Gorillaz have carved out a home for themselves in the hearts of millions.
But in its often wild fluctuations between genres like hip-hop, trip-hop, and dub, Gorillaz’ has struggled to find cohesion and consistency in the past. To root that in example, their critically acclaimed 2010 release Plastic Beaches starts with a track featuring Snoop Dogg. While Snoop can be great, his red-eyed MC-ing just doesn’t mesh with the album, which hits its stride on tracks like “Some Kind of Nature ft. Lou Reed,” when it blurs lines between folk, dub, and rock. On Humanz, the cohesion and flow of their 2005 release Demon Days is nowhere to be found. The lack of cohesion just doesn’t play like Picasso’s Guernica nor Stravinsky’s Rites of Spring, both successful pieces of art that express fractured consciousness. And that’s what it comes down to. Rather than scanning as brilliantly idiosyncratic, the schizophrenic incongruities of sound on Humanz makes listening to it as a complete album an unpleasant experience. The album drifts further into dub territory than any other to date, offering up emotionally-flat tracks like “Strobelite,” which conjures up images of emcee-led synchronized dances at some corporately sponsored club in the downtown of somewhere depressing like Hartford. “Strobelite” is promptly followed by “Saturnz Barz,” in which Popcaan’s auto-tuned voice does a Gorillaz caricature of reggaeton. This song, like a lot of the album, finds refuge in Albarn’s laser-like whine, steeped in a classically British tone of nihilistic confidence. But, throughout most of the album, his voice is lost in the din of squiggly synths and dub sonics. Later in the album, “Sex Murder Party,” sounds like a mash-up of an SNL parody of an 80’s Bowie song and an Eastern European house DJ’s third best track. This song is really a “throw your arms in the air” moment, begging the question, “What in the fuck is going on?” And not in a fun way.
But, like every Gorillaz release to date, there are a couple of those songs that invite you into the perpendicular world of the virtual band, allowing you to enjoy an otherworldly sense of space and sound. Most notably, “Let Me Out (ft. Mavis Staples)” and Pusha T finds that unmatchable Gorillaz sound, balancing Albarn’s creepy-calm vocals with a tight rap verse. Mavis Staples’ vocals elevate the entire track to an R&B anthem, serving as a puzzle piece no one even knew was missing. Unlike a lot of the rest of the album, the dub-heaviness on this track creates an atmosphere that fits into the Gorillaz universe and, even in its high-energy, relaxes the body like only good music can. Also, “Busted and Blue” delivers a change of pace track that presents Albarn’s voice in a bouquet of synths, imploring, “Amplify the sirens//And find real amends//I’m through the echo chambers//To other world’s away.” After much of the album, when Albarn’s voice is drowned out by the clammer of dub-synth cacophony, “Busted and Blue” registers as a breath of fresh air and serves as a reminder that this artist has something to say.
It’s exceedingly difficult to feel unified in this day and age. Like in the aforementioned Picasso and Stravinsky works, there is real artistic value in expressing splintered consciousness. The splintered sound presented in Humanz, though, doesn’t reflect Gorillaz at their Demon Days groove. Compounded by the superficiality of the albums, dub-heavy sound, Humanz is, at best, a lateral step for the world’s most successful virtual band. The strongest song on the album, “Let Me Out,” echoes the sentiment voiced in the “Clint Eastwood” lyric, “finally somebody let me out of my cage.” At its best, the virtual band acts as a concierge for a deeper understanding and emotion that Albarn wants to express, but struggles to through his unmediated voice. At its worst, the cartoon gang acts like psychic bouncers, keeping you out of the exclusive club of Albarn’s mind. While Humanz, with its overwhelming use of dub, tends toward keeping you out of the club, it at least succeeds in provoking a sense that there’s something exceptional inside. — DILLON ALEXANDER