Remember that time, just over a year ago, when I thought that “Humanz” was gonna be the last Gorillaz album? Remember that? When I continuously defended it to the weirdly many detractors I came in contact with because it was one of my favorite bands in the world coming together with lots of other artists to comment on the state of the world in a bunch of beautiful, genre-bending tracks? And I wrote a whole review on it thinking it was gonna be the last one ever?
Oh… well… uh… Gorillaz is back now. I guess “Humanz” wasn’t their last album, huh? Surprise!
I’m joking around a little, but gosh was I not expecting this album as fast as it came. Well actually, I wasn’t expecting this album at all, but here we are! I wanna do “The Now Now” the same justice I gave “Humanz,” but as I sit here writing this intro, I don’t feel like I have the same sort of emotional investment in this album as I did the last one. I’m not at all saying it’s a bad album – it’s great. But the fact it came so quickly and was accepted so easily into the fanbase makes it seem so much less of a big deal than “Humanz” was.
So, anyway, I’m gonna do my best here because I love Gorillaz, and I feel… complicated about this album. I apologize in advance, because while this review starts out pretty run-of-the-mill, it kinda gets weird toward the end. I wanna reiterate that I don’t think this is a bad album, and yet… it really disappointed me in a way I have trouble voicing throughout the post. I hope you enjoy anyway.
1. Humility (Ft. George Benson)
Putting aside the initial shock the announcement of this new album gave me, I was thrilled by this first single. “Humility” is just absolutely gorgeous from beginning to end. From the beginning beats into the incredible jazz guitar playing of George Benson, this song maintains a calming groove throughout.
I think some of my favorite Gorillaz songs (like Empire Ants and To Binge, for example), all have this very soothing, relaxed groove to them. It’s a perfect fit for their sound, considering Damon Albarn has such a sleepy, mumbly quality to his voice. This track uses that mood too, but injects it with energy with the hollow backing beats and the gorgeous guitar work. It creates a sound that is just so incredibly uplifting, the sonic equivalent of a day spent on the beach or by a waterfall, or some other adventurous, calming nature spot.
(And I also have to praise the music video, which features absolutely stunning animation alongside some legitimately hilarious cameos from Jack Black and just a bit of that trademark Gorillaz silliness I love so much.)
From the light groove of “Humility,” the album dives into the darker, electronic sound of this track. As a longtime fan of this band, I enjoy the way these two tracks contrast each other so totally, illustrating the versatility this band has always had.
This song pulls inward, with fast electronic blipping noises and a filter over 2D’s voice that makes it sound like you’re hearing him through a walkie talkie or some other electronic interference. I think this song has a great deal of emotional weight to it, and it made me wonder what the lyrics (difficult to make out, as par for the course for Gorillaz) had to say. The lyrics seem to be a commentary on a self-destruction, probably through partying. In that way the sound illustrates that feeling of destruction almost perfectly, without raising the sound above the pace set by “Humility.”
I do wonder, though, what the title has to do with that idea. Trans is a suffix meaning “across,” and it’s also pretty commonly considered shorthand for “Transgender,” but the lyrics don’t seem to be saying anything about the latter. Perhaps it’s referring to a crossing over of sorts when you decide not to pay any mind to your own self-preservation? Who knows?
3. Hollywood (Ft. Snoop Dogg and Jamie Principle)
This track shows off another side of Gorillaz I’m fond of, the party song side. I think this song doesn’t deviate much from Gorillaz’s general formula for a party song, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does make it a bit difficult to talk about. It’s nice to see them collaborating with Snoop Dogg again, whose sleepy rap style goes hand in hand with the low key sound we’ve heard so far from this album.
It’s definitely catchy, and has a nice vibe, and I can see it having a great atmosphere if you’re planning on dancing to it in a strobe-lit club. The lyrics seem to be commentating on the jealousy and shallowness of Hollywood in a way that doesn’t really invite me to dive too deep into the lyrics. A good song, but not one I see myself returning too often.
And now we come to a song that actually does excite me! I really like the kind of wet sounding feel of the instrumentals. There’s a great drive to this song pushed by that sound. Then, the atmosphere is pushed up by the beautiful synth sounds in the background as well as the subtle backing vocals.
There’s a very nostalgic feel to this song, and while I can’t say for sure I know what the lyrics talk about, the title as well as some of the lines hint at a longing to return home to escape pain being felt in the present. Or maybe it’s because this song reminds me of many of my favorite Gorillaz tracks I would listen to constantly as a kid, which creates that nostalgia in me. Either way, I love this track.
Last album I mentioned how I liked the “-z” motif but I’m a little confused as to why it’s here again. I get that it’s a reference to their name, but that’s always been their name and they’ve never done the “-z” thing before “Humanz,” so I thought it was a dual reference to the album name as well. But they’re still doing it here, with no z to be found in the album name? Am I making too big of a deal about this? Probably.
I really like the sound of this song. It certainly has a very mysterious, even magical feel to it, making its name feel earned. I like how the instrumental motifs introduced at the beginning of this song continue to layer over each other as it nears the end, until it gets to a point that the song becomes a dense wall of pulsating sound. Plus, 2D’s voice cuts through the auditory chaos despite its usual low-key sound.
The first time I heard this song, I was actually kinda surprised. I feel like a lot of Gorillaz’ sound recently has leaned heavily into electronic, modern sounds. I guess I should have known better to pigeonhole their sound into anything, but the sort-of acoustic start to this song sets it apart immediately from the relatively electronic sound the album has had so far.
The electronic sound eventually kicks back in over the acoustics, and that layer creates this beautiful atmosphere that I really enjoy. This is a really melancholy track.
It does remind me a lot of “Busted and Blue” from “Humanz,” which is kind of a shame because it invites comparison between the two that, I think, makes this song seem less interesting. I love both songs, though, even if I wasn’t as moved by this one.
7. Lake Zurich
This song has got a great beat and groove to it. The first sounds you hear from this one is the beat, and then everything from that point on is layered in specifically to enhance that great beat. It also has some interesting dynamic changes and little vocal effects sprinkled here and there to keep that groove feeling interesting. Often a problem I have with instrumentals of this kind is that they grow stale quickly, but this one doesn’t have that problem at all.
8. Magic City
Another nice, atmospheric electronic song in an album of… a lot of those.
Okay, you know what? I wanna say one thing about this album that’s… maybe a little undeserved, but I can’t deny it anyway. I’m a little bitter towards this album. I mentioned above how much “Humanz” affected me last year, and what a big deal it was. I loved it for a lot of reasons that you can read on my actual review of it, but one of the biggest was I felt it encapsulated a lot of the different genres Gorillaz has explored over the years. I also think it got panned by a lot of people for that same reason. And that’s fine, they can have their opinion, but what bothers me is I think with this album they’ve kind of toned down that genre exploration.
While a lot of the songs on this album are great, they’re all great for the same reason. They’re electronic-sounding, atmospheric tracks with 2D performing his usual sleepy vocals over it. And I guess that’s what people wanted, because I’ve seen a lot more wide acclaim from the fanbase for this album. And I don’t know… that makes me sad. What I’ve always loved about Gorillaz is how they can make so many wildly different tracks fit together and shine for a bunch of different reasons.
I don’t dislike this album, but I do dislike what this album represents. I worry it means that the Gorillaz I’ll see going forward won’t be as interested in testing boundaries and exploring their sound. They’ll be interested only in this very safe electronic sound. And seeing “Humanz” as the send-off for this band I love that I thought it was for the time, I sort of already went through the stages of grief and put it to rest in my head, only for it to plunge forth once more looking… just a little different. It makes me worry that this Gorillaz isn’t the same one I made my peace with ending.
Is that stupid? Probably. But it’s the thing that keeps nagging at me this entire time I’ve been writing this review. I guess your mileage may vary.
Anyway, this is a nice song.
9. Fire Flies
I can’t see the title of this song and not think of the Owl City track by almost the same name, which is a shame because it’s got a nice atmosphere. I like the uneven beat of this one and boisterous low end.
Actually, right after going off about how I felt a lot of the songs on this album sound very similar, I actually think this one differentiates itself enough from the rest that I could picture myself coming back to it.
10. One Percent
And this one is quite space-like. Definitely very beautiful. Ugh, I’m sorry you guys. I majorly bummed myself out with that last revelation about this album, and it’s making me really aware of the fact that the words I’m finding to describe each of these new songs keep sounding very similar.
This one is shorter than the rest, at least?
11. Souk Eye
And we round out this honestly very odd review with a song I actually do like. There’s an almost tropical vibe, similar to the one established in “Humility” that not only harkens back to the days of “Plastic Beach,” but also give something a little fresher for me to hang onto.
There’s also a little more energy here than I think is present in many of the other tracks here, pulling it out of the normal trancey electronic monotony I’ve been just sort of okay with up until this point.
I apologize that this review went so off the rails, but it’s nearly midnight on Saturday, and all motivation for me to review this album was killed dead by my disappointing revelation earlier. I really hate to leave a review like this, but I guess we can’t all win at everything. I can’t fully make my peace with this pretty decent album, nor can I seem to write a coherent review for it.
Going back and reading what I wrote, I realize that I actually do like many of the tracks here, most of them, in fact. But there’s just something about them that’s… safe, I guess. I think it’s the fact that I just sorta like them without having to really engage with them in any way that’s disappointing me so much. Since I was little, Gorillaz has been the band that was constantly challenging the sort of music I listened to and the genre boundaries I tried to stay within. It got me listening to rap and hip hop and reggae as a kid who would never say that she enjoyed any of those genres.
Maybe I’m just older now and I’ve learned enough about myself that this music isn’t challenging me anymore. Or… and this is my big worry… maybe Gorillaz isn’t interested in making challenging music anymore. Maybe “Humanz” was their last attempt at making something weird and maybe a little difficult to sink your teeth into, and this album is setting the pace for them to just continue churning out easy-listening smooth electronica.
Perhaps this review would have been better as an overview rather than a track-by-track breakdown, and I realize that now. I think my problem is I wanted to give it the same treatment I did “Humanz,” but as I’ve echoed a few times, I don’t think this album has quite as much to talk about as “Humanz” did. That’s not necessarily a good or bad thing, but it is something that’s tripping me up a little.
It’s disappointing, and I hate that. I hate that this band disappointed me, because I don’t really know if they deserve it. Maybe I’m just being too nostalgic for a time and a place and a band that just doesn’t exist anymore.
I want to be surprised by each new track this band puts out, not just surprised they’re back so soon.
Better post next week…. probably?