You’d be hard-pressed to find a band with an image as cultivated as the Gorillaz. Like literally: the band is animated. Their composition is 90 percent image, 10 percent music. That ratio is exaggerated, but it gets the point across. And this doesn’t mean that image and music are separated like oil and water either. When the band is at its best, their music is entirely unique to their image. And now we have a new Gorillaz album coming out soon, so I thought it would be cool to look back on what’s come before and see what’s worked for the Gorillaz and what hasn’t.
I’m going to get the best out of the way first: Gorillaz’ self-titled debut is my favorite album of theirs. As I said, this band is all image, and this is the album where that image gets directly tied to their music. Gorillaz’ self-titled album is one of those albums that feels fresh every time I listen to it; it’s the album where the Gorillaz sound as unique as they look, and it still stands out in a discography that varies in sound and style.
While I love the hits like “Clint Eastwood” and “19-2000,” it’s cuts like “Slow Country,” “Double Bass,” “Left Hand Suzuki Method” and “Punk” that keep me coming back to this album. These tracks are all great and give off vibes of being really out there and strange but still enjoyable. I always think of graffiti when I listen to this album: You might not understand what it is or if there’s a point to it, but it’s fresh to look at. This is what the whole album feels like–fresh. Unfortunately, I feel like the band hasn’t been able to match this level of uniqueness since then.
If their self-titled is the best, then what’s the worst? Well excluding any B-, G- or D-side tapes or iPad albums called “The Fall,” I think “Demon Days” is the album that I feel the coldest toward. This is an odd thing to say because looking at the album’s tracklist now, I find that I like a ton of these songs despite still feeling lukewarm towards the album as a whole.
My biggest complaint with this album is that I think its pacing is lacking. The songs themselves aren’t necessarily bad, but as an entire album, there’s just a sense of coherence that’s missing. “Demon Days” doesn’t progress from song to song, but rather it just moves from blocks of similar-sounding song to similar-sounding song (with the exception of the stretch from “Dirty Harry” to “November Has Come”). There’s no reason to have “O Green World” come after “Kids With Guns,” which itself comes after “Last Living Souls.” There just isn’t any variety here with these tracks.
Despite this, some of the band’s best moments are found on “Demon Days.” Tracks like “Feel Good Inc.,” “Dirty Harry” and “November Has Come” are probably the band’s best foray into hiphop. And then the non-hip-hop tracks are pretty strong too: “El Mañana,” “Every Planet We Reach is Dead” and “Demon Days” are all great songs in their own right. I just think it’s a shame that so much on this album would have served a much better place on one of the band’s various B-side tapes.
And that brings us to where the Gorillaz left us: “Plastic Beach,” which succeeds where “Demon Days” went wrong: It’s the album in the discography that I think feels the most cohesive. Which is kind of odd, because this album started conceptually as one that was supposed to feature artists other than Gorillaz themselves. It wasn’t until later in the album’s creation that it was turned into a bonafide Gorillaz album, but its origins can still be seen in the tracklist.
This album had a lot of features. In fact, only four out of the 16 tracks are ones where it’s just the Gorillaz. What’s great about this is that the tracks on this album feel like these songs are still Gorillaz tracks despite the overabundance of features. This is due in part to the theme of the album, which the band pulls off so well.
“Plastic Beach” is an album describing the world for all its excess and over-consumption and the waste this produces. It’s an album where the song “Stylo” might be about a car (as the single artwork and music video would suggest), but it’s also about how the materialist culture that the car represents is creating a sort of profound emptiness in the world. What’s great about this execution of theme, and what my attempt at description utterly fails at, is that this theme is integrally tied to the lyrics by more than just music.
“Superfast Jellyfish” sounds like an ad for a commercial that was stretched out into a song, “Stylo” represents the “juice” of the car with this glaring synth that accompanies Bobby Womack’s vocals and “Sweepstakes” represents the chaos of overconsumption by literally bursting apart into a chaotic arrangement of horns and computer noises under Mos Def’s verses. The theme might not be unique, but the way it’s represented in the music is original and boundary-pushing. The best parts of this album are what make the Gorillaz great.
I’m hoping that Gorillaz’ new album “Humanz” can live up to the standards set by “Plastic Beach” and their self-titled debut, but the singles I’ve heard so far haven’t left me too hopeful. But whatever the case, I’ll always have these albums to look back on, and you will, too! If you haven’t listened to the band’s music before, don’t be afraid to dive right in. After all, now would be the perfect time to see what came before.