Gorillaz Track Reviews – ‘Ascension,’ ‘Andromeda,’ More
Gorillaz return having achieved their greatest success and endured their most catastrophic failure. Plastic Beach, the animated band’s 2010 album, was a critical high point: a daring and diverse LP that managed to reconcile Damon Albarn’s eclecticism and activism into a single cohesive and satisfying work. Sadly, no amount in studio success could guarantee Gorrillaz triumph in the meatspace. When Albarn’s band headlined Glastonbury (filling in for an injured U2), the animated allstar ensemble flopped. The music was magnificent in places, but as the frontman pleaded for the audience to sing along, the gulf between resplendent return Blur had enjoyed just a year earlier and the struggles Albarn’s artful experimentation now endured proved painfully obvious for all to see.
So what exactly are Gorillaz supposed to be in 2017? An arthouse collective with a monstrously large audience? A mainstream pop group who with serious commercial ambitions? Or simply a smorgasbord of experimentation, an ever-evolving playlist bringing new sounds to intrigued, but unexpecting ears? Plastic Beach suggested a singular focus delivered through a diversity of sound, the band’s first two LPs pointed to scattergun pop. Perhaps the four furtive offerings released today will help us discover exactly what direction album number four, Humanz, will take. (note: we’re not counting The Fall in this chronology)
“Ascension”, the album opener, is an absolute riot: an unflinching showcase for Vince Staples. The guest MC is full of both invective and irony. The hook is club ready, but it pokes fun at our indifference in the face of global and domestic calamity: “The sky’s falling baby, drop that ass before it crash”. This is no party to welcome the apocalypse, this is a crooked smile and a condescending sneer in the face of the both compliance and complacency. When Vince’s gets serious, all illusions are removed as he spits, “I’m just playing baby this is the land of the free/where you can get a glock and gram for the cheap/where you can live dreams long as you don’t look like me/be a puppet on a string hanging from a tree”. That devastating verse is followed by a harrowing scream and surrounded by haunting gospels harmonies. It’s a brutal contrast, a simultaneous exaltation and cry for help from a hopeless society. [8.5]
Damon Albarn (yet again) takes a backseat on the wonderfully sinister “Saturn Barz”. Dancehall and clash king Popcaan takes the lead, but rather than bouncing to a summery beat, the Jamaican star is floating in an eerie industrial space. Static hums and slippery alien sonics create a hopeless void for Popcaan’s booming vocal to fill. There’s plenty of schlocky B-Movie tricks to be found here: creepy clicks and a comically ghoulish choir back Albarn as he deadpans a callous chorus. Popcaan has sung of sorrow and bleakness before, but his vocal has never felt this grim. The dancehall star is disembodied. He is MCing a disco taking place inside Albarn’s depressed cranium – “with the holograms beside me, I’ll dance alone tonight”. “Saturn Barz” proves a preposterous, but strangely enjoyable listen that speaks to a haunting emptiness behind the eyes. [7.5]
“Andromeda” feels more typical of latterday Albarn and readily recalls Plastic Beach/The Fall: a steady and skipping club beat propels the gloomy eyed singer through a somber verse towards the warm and springy synthetic sonics of the instrumental break-cum-chorus. “Take it in the heart now lover” is the soft droned hook, backed by D.R.A.M., but, despite some neat production, this is the kind of heartfelt moping we’ve heard endlessly from Albarn over the years. He’s so comfortable with his head down and so crafty instilling wintry chills in summer shades that “Andromeda” doesn’t fail, but (outside the context on an album) it doesn’t inspire either. [6.5]
If Gorillaz revelled in taking D.R.A.M. and Popcaan out of their summery element, then its genuinely shocking to hear the ferocious Jehnny Beth of Savages featuring on a track whose hook cheerily declares: “We got the power to be loving each other”. The arrangement is both overly familiar and intriguing. Gorillaz have toyed with these sonics before, but there is a joy to hearing the Elvis Costello-esque whirl of the fairground in their synths.
The track will no doubt gain notoriety for being the first recording to feature both Damon Albarn and Noel Gallagher (he provides backing vocals during the chorus), but the undisputed star on this resilient little track is Beth. Her turn as an optimist preacher proves thrilling. Her tremulous and ghostly cry manages to convey the resolution of a dreamer miraculously well (without wholly erasing the insecurity we all feel in these times). “My dreams don’t know fear”, she cries and you believe her. Like “Andromeda”, “We Got The Power” may well function better in the context of a full LP, as two minutes of pop music it’s perfectly serviceable as it stutters, skips and strides in the face of a fearful world. [7.0]