Gorillaz Return To Dystopia and Dance The Pain Away on 'Humanz' [First-Take Listen]
They're not your most conventional sort of musicians. Actually, they're not even real, breathing people. But when Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett's cartoon creations do surface, the timing and roster are weighed equally in their approach.
Such is the case on the latest Gorillaz outing, Humanz, the group's first album in seven years. Which isn't to say Albarn's been missing or anything. In 2015, he delivered Blur's eighth studio album, The Magic Whip, an unexpected treat following a 12-year hiatus. Where Albarn's Britpop configuration was tailored for up-front dominance, Gorillaz was always a faceless operation with a few chip-toothed grin. Its members resemble some of music's most polarizing talents: Bjork, Noel Gallagher, Cee-Lo and Jack White. All genre-destroying eccentrics, all peers of Gorillaz's principle musical force.
It's important to note that the last transmission from our animated bandits was a two-parter; Plastic Beach, a predictably star-studded affair, and The Fall , an uncharacteristically feature-barren free project that followed on Christmas Day of 2010, both seeped in dystopic themes and a command for sci-fi imagery that leaned as heavily on Philp K. Dick's spaceships as Slavoj Žižek's hopelessness. But both of these albums, and their latest, are a more logical and thematic extension of the 2005 release, Demon Dayz, where all of the end-is-nigh waxing began. Even the cover of Humanz tips its hat to DD and if I'm reading the arch correctly, the new album can be heard as a sequel of sorts to their sophomore stunner.
Already dubbed an "end of the world" playlist by critics, Humanz has been performed with the full arsenal on-hand on several occasions and after a first run, I don't necessarily disagree. But Gorillaz has been cheering on imminent doom since the get. The only difference between 2001 and today is that categorically human-made disasters were on the horizon at the turn of the century. Some of those doomsday scenarios have yet to play out, but others are fully realized and delivered in real-time. Gorillaz returned to their dystopia manifest, but it’s hard to say whether the album condemns the transformation or pleads with us to apply our most human sensibilities to it.
I should disclose that I don't believe there's ever been a bad Gorillaz project. Albarn holds a high bar in his rigorous collaborative work. With Humanz, however, the Gorillaz vision is at its clearest and best realized, from each and every mixed-multimedia angle. As if it was all building to this. Below are some thoughts on each track as I made way through the latest chapter in the ongoing, and hopefully never ending, Gorillaz saga.
“Ascension” feat. Vince Staples
Rapturous commencement of choirs and jungle house pacing in the vein of Outkast’s “Church” or “B.O.B.” or even Frank Ocean’s “Pretty Sweet.” Vince is sharp-as-ever. Can't tell if this is a celebration or a wake, though.
“Strobelite” feat. Peven Everett
A bubbly r&b lament of oncoming doom that lights the path to salvation with the trance-inducing flicker of a disco ball.
“Saturn Barz” feat. Popcaan
The "party" dips into dub territory with Popcaan playing the red-eyed sage warning travelers of the copious conflictions ahead, as he takes long pulls of an arm-length spliff. Call it self-care.
“Momentz” feat. De La Soul
A gear-grinding stomper that dissolves into 8-bit yacht rock indulgences. sort of a sonic embodiment of the social media syringe emptying its chamber.
“Submission” feat. Danny Brown and Kelela
Danny Brown and Kelela dance around a neon-lit wormhole on one the album's best slivers yet. Could easily be a track off one of the singer's own albums; twisted and experimental with one foot on the dark side.
“Charger” feat. Grace Jones
A disorienting blitz of drills, synths and Jones’ electric breath. Consider this a peek at the ship's inner workings, the haunting, fuzzed-out fuel line feeding the entirety of Humanz.
“Andromeda” feat. D.R.A.M.
Perhaps D.R.A.M.'s most subtle yet present feature ever, pulsing with heavy disco pop and all the astral appeal.
“Busted and Blue”
The album’s lone Gorillaz-only composition is technically another Kelela collaboration and her trills are the precise light it searches for hovering over the extinction-level event they forewarned.
“Carnival” feat. Anthony Hamilton
If the prior was an eagle-eye on a broken world, “Carnival” is the crew crash-landing at some apocalyptic afterparty with the survivors, relishing what may be final moments.
“Let Me Out” feat. Mavis Staples and Pusha T
So the party turns out to be a ghoulish thing and the trip is spiraling into dangerous spaces of excess. Pusha, one of hip-hop's all-time vice rappers, and Aunt Mavis, a pivotal voice and performer in the civil rights movement, cross streams, find balance and lay the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man of hedonism to rest.
“Sex Murder Party” feat. Jamie Principle and Zebra Katz
A moment of solitary reflection on the dance floor, recounting the unspeakable horrors witnessed and laying to rest the guilt of complicity. It's also an entrancing and minimalistic little number with a ton of late-night utility.
"She's My Collar feat. Kali Uchis
Seduction begets salvation on Humanz. Uchis assists on an intoxicating three and a half-minute stretch of the album,
“Hallelujah Money” feat. Benjamin Clementine
The album's mystifying closing prayer, that when released as a single didn't quite hit me. Here, sitting at the tail-end of an absolutely breakneck album, it's kinda like reaching that moment with Willy Wonka when you can't quite tell if all the terrors you had just witnessed in The Chocolate Factory were his doing or our own.
“We Got The Power” feat. Jehnny Beth
Finally, launching through the elevator shaft and back to the world with renewed vigor, the album caps off with an anthem that's easily its cheesiest peak. But I'm a sucker for strings and if this is 2D, Murdoc, Noodle and Russel waving us off after a revealing return, I'm not mad at it. Just hope they don't wait too long to get the band back together.