Forget the cartoon characters. Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett’s animated misfits have always been mainly interesting as a concept, and on much of the third Gorillaz album, Plastic Beach, it feels like Albarn and co. are ditching the idea of writing pop songs a cartoon band might front anyway. The one-time Blur frontman has transcended some of the post-modern artifice of this project, and created the group’s most affecting and uniquely inviting album. Joke’s over, Gorillaz are real.
So why make this a Gorillaz album in the first place? It wasn’t meant to be one. Hewlett, the celebrated Tank Girl co-creator, told The Observer last July, “Gorillaz now to us is not like four animated characters anymore– it’s more like an organization of people doing new projects.” The project was to be called Carousel, presented by, but not performed by, Gorillaz. It never panned out. So Albarn devised Plastic Beach, a loose enviromental-song cycle warning against disposability. It’s a noble conceit, if a transient one.
Along with a typically diverse band of collaborators, Albarn dips into Krautrock, funk, and dubstep, as well as the weary, more melodic music he’s been perfecting for much of last decade– sort of an electronic take on baroque pop. Albarn also sounds more comfortable as a leader here than he has in some time. On the standout “On Melancholy Hill”, he recalls the swooning strains of one of his heroes, Scott Walker. And when he shares or cedes vocals, he has the good sense to turn things over to luminaries like Lou Reed (magnificently dry-throated on “Some Kind of Nature”) and Bobby Womack (good on first single “Stylo”, better on the twangy “Cloud of Unknowing”), while effortlessly integrating them into the sound.
Handling most of the production himself, Albarn has reversed the good fortune of the first two Gorillaz albums. With Dan the Automator on their 2001 self-titled debut and Danger Mouse on 2005’s Demon Days, the group was adept at fusing giddy pop with hip-hop, inserting De La Soul, Del the Funky Homosapien, or a yippy Miho Hatori into some of their best songs (“Clint Eastwood”, “Dirty Harry”, “Feel Good Inc.”, “19-2000”). Those songs crashed in from all places with little mind to sequence or balance, and the result was two fairly unfocused records saved by some decent alt-rap.
On Plastic Beach, things are the other way around. The rap moments here feel almost needlessly idiosyncratic amidst the lusher treatments. Snoop Dogg’s appearance on “Welcome to the World of the Plastic Beach” is an incongruous introduction to an album that has nothing to do with Snoop Dogg. De La repeat themselves on the faux jingle “Superfast Jellyfish”. Grime MCs Kano and Bashy compellingly play pass-the-baton on “White Flag”, but only after disrupting an absorbing intro and outro by the Lebanese National Orchestra for Oriental Arabic Music. Only on “Sweepstakes” is Mos Def able to assimilate into the production.
Albarn is more natural when working in the kind of ornate Village Green Preservation Society-style pop that dominates Plastic Beach. His collaborations with Little Dragon, “Empire Ants” and “To Binge” are two of the most arresting things here– they’re airy, elusive, and amazingly beautiful. It’s been years since Albarn has written anything as blatantly gorgeous. If he had to work past the animated pretense to rediscover it, all the better. Why be a cartoon when you can be a real person?
— Sean Fennessey, March 10, 2010