Gorillaz – Plastic Beach

Gorillaz – Plastic Beach

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I have always believed that things happen for a reason, so when I read that the Gorillaz new album entered the US charts at #2, I knew that the reason was that it is a damn good album. Like Eno and Peter Gabriel before him, Damon Albarn has done some of his best work post-Blur and in collaboration with others. In this case those others include Snoop Dogg, Bobby Womack, Mos Def, Lou Reed, The Clash’s Mick Jones and Paul Simonon, The National Orchestra for Arabic Music, De La Soul, Gruf Rhys and others. In a back alley street fight, Gorillaz would kick Blur’s ass, especially this Gorillaz. Plastic Beach has a different feel to it than the earlier albums, much broader, more expansive and willing to take risks. It’s also the first self-produced Gorillaz album. As the intervening years have seen Albarn literally travel the world musically, this is a natural evolution. According to Murdoc, “It makes Demon Days seem like a warm up act.” He’s not exaggerating.

The album opens, appropriately enough, with beach sounds as a lush string, “Orchestral Intro” welcomes visitors and sets the tone. It’s Snoop Dog that does it up proper with, “Welcome to the World of the Plastic Beach.” He’s backed by some smooth electro-soul that couldn’t be more different from the opening but somehow works, even when bordered at the other end by the light Arabic flute and orchestration blended into dub that is “White Flag”. Amidst the swirl of electronics, strings, and rap a story begins to emerge as it is a concept album as much as Gorillaz are a concept band.

“Rhinestone Eyes” continues and deepens the story. In a relatively minimalist setting, talk-rap reminiscent of some ’80s Pet Shop Boys, explains, “I’m a scary gargoyle on a tower that you made with plastic power…your loves like rhinestones falling from the sky.” I don’t think it’s reading to much into the symbolism to consider that rhinestones are basically plastic diamonds. It’s classic Gorillaz and will appeal to those hoping for the familiar band. In a one-two puch, “Stylo” and Mos Def follow with the same kind of slick noir.

“Superfast Jellyfish” is a track that either lightens the mood or simply shows the band to have a weird sense of humor. It’s about what you would expect from De La Soul and someone who used to be part of Super Furry Animals. I suppose that on Plastic Beach seafood is common, being a floating island and all. “Empire Ants” is a peaceful song. Slow, soft, and dreamy, like watching the sunset from the beach with a belly full of jellyfish. When the sun goes down, the dancing begins as electronic dance synths smooth out the groove. In slight contrast to its warm predecessor, “Glitter Freeze” is exactly how it sounds, all sparkles and icy synth squeals.

Plastic finds its way into many of the albums tracks. “Some Kind of Nature” finds Lou Reed at his Lou Reediest asking for “some kind of plastic I can wrap around you.” It’s very much a pop song and has a light and bouncy feel to it. In “On Melancholy Hill” “there’s a plastic tree.” The song seems much lighter and hopeful than the title would imply. “Plastic Beach” talks of “a Casio on a plastic beach.” It’s a song with a good groove if you can get past the warping of the vocals. “To Binge” is another track in which the song is lighter than the title in contrast to the lyrics, which match the heavier tone of the name. While “Broken,” sounding something like Bowie’s darker work, has the sad and defeated tone that you would expect.

The weakest and (unfortunately) longest track of the album, “Sweepstakes,” is another collaboration with Mos Def. It’s a glitchy, repetitive, dark electronic song that is several minutes too long and reminds me of being stuck in line behind someone buying their lottery tickets.  Closing out the album, “Pirate Jet” shares the repetitiveness, but it’s only half as long and so is easier to take.

Despite the weakness of a few tracks, Plastic Beach is far and away Gorillaz strongest album to date. In addition to the excellent music, it is a concept album with a high degree of development. Both the I-Tunes and physical versions come with a variety of extras including DVDs, a still gallery, exclusive videos, interactive game, and other interactive online content to be revealed in time. Perhaps the cleverest aspect of the concept is a sly nod to the fact that Gorillaz is essentially a plastic band. But, plastic or not, these fake musicians are backed up by real music and that makes all the difference.


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