Thursday, 4 March 2010
Genre Electronic/Alternative Hip-Hop
Producer Damon Albarn
Release Date March 8th
There have been times in the past where I've looked at Damon Albarn, the creative force behind Gorillaz and formally of Blur, and declared that he was this generation's David Bowie. It's not just that the man has been producing high quality music for a number of years, it's the sheer range of different sounds and styles that Albarn dares to experiment with across his various pieces of work.
Gorillaz in particular has become a platform which allows Albarn to push the envelope creatively and explore the furthest boundaries of his creativity, as we've seen in their past two studio albums, often with mixed success. So it is not lightly that I tell you that Plastic Beach is Gorillaz most "out there" album yet. It might also be their best.
Plastic Beach is largely a collaborative album, with most tracks featuring an eclectic selection of big name contributors which hail from vastly genres of music. On what other album can you find the Lebanese National Orchestra, Snoop Dogg and Lou Reed? Other guests include Mos Def, Gruff Rhys (from Super Furry Animals), Bobby Womack and Paul Simon.
With such a diverse cast of all stars, it would be easy to "phone it in" and disappoint, as most collaborative albums do, but Plastic Beach manages to play to the strengths of the considerable talent at its disposal, without overdoing it. Part of the reason for that is that Albarn still always takes centre stage in these songs, as well he should do, and Albarn is at his unique and daring best throughout.
As always, the back story for the album follows the band's distinctive technicolor cartoon personae, this time featuring cyborg bassists, kidnapped pop stars and isolation on an island of garbage (hence the title of the album). This silliness adequately prepares you for the often wacky and sprawling nature of the music, but it undersells the substance of the whole package. The story of plastic beach really deals with environmentalism and the fallacy of consumer culture. It's a more mature message from the band, with a more mature sound to match it.
The album begins strongly with a short orchestral intro that segues into Welcome to the World of the Plastic Beach featuring Snoop Dogg, smashing the classical music with a hammer of brassy electronic hip hop, an excellent contrast that lets you know immediately that this album is moving in a new direction.
In case this point wasn't made clearly enough, the next song White Flag features Kano and the Lebanese National Orchestra. This track somehow manages to combine a sweeping oriental symphony with rap lyrics and Crystal Castle style casio beats.
Wisely intuiting that Gorillaz fans would be checking their iTunes right about now to make sure this was the right album, the next song Rhinestone Eyes is more what we've come to expect from Gorillaz with sharp 80s synths and Albarn's subdued chants.
The first few songs journey through chaos before we settle down on Gorillaz's trashy paradise. We come to Superfast Jellyfish, featuring Gruff Rhys and De La Soul. This song is surely going to be the second single off the album (after the less good Stylo), featuring that classic Gorillaz combo of hip hop and uplifting pop, taken to new extremes. The song laments the fast food consumerism of the modern world in a context that only Albarn's bright and fluffy cartoon world can. This is probably the closest you'll find on this album to some of their older hits like 19-2000 and Feel Good Inc.
But this album is all about surprising the listener, and the next song does just that. Empire Ants, featuring Swedish indie band Little Dragon, begins with a sleepy, despondent lullaby before bursting with Passion Pit style shimmering synths. Little Dragon return later in the album with To Binge, another very different style of song from Gorillaz, faintly reminiscent of some of the pop ballads of 90s band Catatonia or the Cardigans from way back.
Lou Reed also makes a strong appearance in Some Kind of Nature, a jaunty and offbeat New York style piano tune. It's a testament to the cohesion of the album that they managed to bring in aged rockers like Reed and Womack without sounding at all out of place, and this song is the best example of that.
Now as anyone who knows me may not be so surprised to hear, I am saving the best until last. On Melancholy Hill is easily the best song on the album, and surely one of the best songs Gorillaz, or any Albarn project for that matter, has produced. It's not the most complex song lyrically, a simple love song in essence, but it's simply a perfect distillation of indie pop. This song does away with the distinctive heavy bass and beat of typical Gorillaz fare and replaces it with ethereal synth and a bittersweet melody, drawing on elements from everything from Bowie to Daft Punk and inventing new sounds all his own, crafting something that is just beautiful. Listen to this song and float away.
I always say that one of the marks of a great album is when many different people can look at an album and all pick out different favorite songs. Most albums will always have one or two standout tracks, the "big hits", but with this one any song on the album will be someone's favorite. Stylo, the first single, is very popular, Rhinestone Eyes, Superfast Jellyfish and Sweepstakes, I've heard people come to me and say that those are the best tracks on the album. And of course my personal favorite, On Melancholy Hill.
So really, this isn't a flawless album, not all the songs are winners and there are some forgettable tracks, but the overall package is something truly special and unique. There are some excellent songs on here, and even the less good songs are well done, and all fit well within the manic dreamlike world Albarn has concocted here. When you listen to the wistful synth organ of that final track Pirate Jet, evoking images of that plastic beach disappearing over the horizon, you might just find yourself sad to be leaving.
On Melancholy Hill
Some Kind of Nature