Gorillaz – Plastic Beach [Album]

Taking it upon themselves to assemble some of the music world’s finest talent on a remote non-bio-degradable island, Gorillaz deliver their new album Plastic Beach. Over thirteen million record sales in, they’re still delivering cutting-edge, forward-thinking and pretty much unique pop music.

Snoop Dogg’s usual gleeful nonsense (“’Cos I’m rollin’, deep holin’, click-clackin’, crack-a-lackin’”) is undiluted, cast into a laid-back opener continuing from the Orchestral Intro prologue. Plastic Beach eschews Demon Days’ cosmic leanings in favour of the more earthbound, environmental outlook suggested by its title. Indeed even the Stylo video – specifically the bizarrely incongruous scene in which a scary smoke demon materialises from the ground to consume an obese stricken cop reaching for a doughnut even in the throes of death – supports such a reading. This sequence appears symbolic of a commodity-based, ignorant public (the cop) pointedly ignoring the pressing issue of climate change in their channel-hopping mindset (reaching for our metaphorical doughnut) even as the end looms large over our heads ready to strike (embodied in the genuinely unnerving, ghastly entity elsewhere seen attacking a passive 2D, gawping at a manic urban sprawl). Closer Pirate Jet is also mocking in a way that only a virtual band unconcerned with and unaffected by climate change can be.

Although Plastic Beach’s concept is something of a heavy one, it never feels like the album becomes entangled in it. The atmosphere always remains that of a loose jam; it’s fun, informal, creative. Therefore, the results are mostly spectacular, with only a few misfires due to heightened expectations of the album’s big names; Glitter Breeze for example is a strident cyborg stomp on which Mark E. Smith may as well not be present. By contrast, Lou Reed’s input is much more extensive, his indistinct lyrics and lazy delivery colouring Some Kind of Nature pleasingly. It’s one of the more blendsome tracks however, and certainly doesn’t benefit from being placed before Melancholy Hill’s massive Super Mario-style hook. On the whole, it’s a massive testament to the production work done on the album that Plastic Beach comes off so well. A decent slew of the guest stars are way past their creative peaks; definitely Reed, Jones and Simonon and arguably Smith and Rhys slipped from the height of their powers years ago. And the shift to a more electronic, mostly hip-hop-based template posits them in interestingly unfamiliar territory. The most consistently rewarding collaborations however are those with Little Dragon and Mos Def, and the various ensembles such as the Sinfonia ViVA and Lebanese National Orchestra for Oriental Arabic Music. The energetic one-off White Flag for instance dissolves from the Orchestra’s organic intro to the processed, ruined fairground surrounding Kano and Bashy, through which the former occasionally permeate. Rather obviously however, it’s a happy and peaceful track at heart, “White Flag? White Flag.” the grime duo concurring.

Stylo is the runaway highlight of Plastic Beach, easily the most subtly poppish, multi-faceted, and yet soulful thing Gorillaz have yet produced. It’s four-minutes-thirty of highlight after highlight, each vying for the listener’s attention as much as the last. Mos Def’s E. E. Cummings-style free associations (“love, electricity, shockwave, central, power on the motherboard yes”), 2D’s laconic verse phrases and mantra-based chorus and Bobby Womack’s freakout middle eight all gel seamlessly into a dazzling standout. Superfast Jellyfish is like a debased cartoon re-imagining of Empire State of Mind with toy drums, a stoned-sounding De La Soul and Gruff Rhys’ breakfast cereal jingle chorus. Both Little Dragon hook-ups are winners; Empire Ants begins as something blissfully sunny before shifting into a glistening disco bounce, and Albarn’s influence comes through most strongly in the comparatively stripped-down To Binge. Aside from criticisms specific to the material, the major criticism of Plastic Beach is as follows:

The collaborations have become a bit of a ‘thing’; at a super-critical stretch, maybe even slightly contrived. Whilst providing some amazing moments, they at times verge on what resembles a crutch that the album leans more and more heavily, particularly in its final act. The simple fact is, however, that solo Gorillaz can handle themselves as competently as on either of their previous albums. An undeniable highlight is Rhinestone Eyes – its neon artifice sounding like overloaded circuitboards in a child’s keyboard – which most strongly recalls Slow Country from Gorillaz and features no guest vocalists. For all its professed eclectism, the album as a whole resembles Demon Days’ dark midsection of MF Doom and Roots Manuva collaborations (also taking in Every Planet We Reach is Dead and White Light). Sweepstakes, despite being full-on, dense hip-hop, is the closest we get to the naive charms of DARE, and is consequently awesome; the album shifts down a gear after Sweepstakes’ dance-off, beginning with the title track featuring Mick Jones and Paul Simonon. As an equal consequence of the former’s strength and the latter’s weakness, Sweepstakes makes Plastic Beach look like a complete mug.

It’s worth pointing out that whilst the collaborative element to Gorillaz wears ever-so-slightly thin at times, their ‘virtual band’ schtick admirably still hasn’t. A band whose activities, music and (for want of a better word) lives are only governed by the imagination of their creators could have become the ‘albatross’ that Murdoc cited as the reason behind their Mercury Music Prize boycott way back when. But taken as an entry into their already-brilliant canon, Plastic Beach is another triumph that again has the rest of popular music running to catch up.

9 out of 10

Gorillaz on Myspace
Gorillaz on Last.fm
Plastic Beach cover from Wikimedia Commons.


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