Gorillaz - Plastic Beach - Albums - Reviews - Soundblab

Gorillaz - Plastic Beach

by Rich Morris Rating:8 Release Date:2010-03-08

Gorillaz third album is apparently a concept record about ecological disaster. Plenty has been and will be written about this in reviews, but, frankly, why bother? One thing you can probably guess about Plastic Beach without even hearing a note is that such environmental concerns have almost no bearing whatsoever on the music . Nor, it's equally safe to assume, will they sway those who might buy the album. After all, we know exactly what we want from a Gorillaz album: great, genre-splicing pop, studded with frequent guest-spots for delightfully incongruous bit-part players, be they music legends like Ike Turner or cool-to-namedrop acts like Dan the Automator.

The irrelevance of the whole conceptual shebang this time around, which comes with some no-doubt well-intentioned guff about a floating island made of trash (hence Plastic Beach, you see?) does raise the question: why is Gorillaz creator Damon Albarn, who has indisputably claimed his place as one of the greatest songwriters the UK has produced in the last 20 years, still bothering with the whole cartoon character caboodle? The fictitious band shtick was funny for precisely one moment: the instant when you first saw the video for Gorillaz's debut single 'Clint Eastwood' and heard Albarn's eeyore-ish whine issue forth from a crazy cartoon creature and you realised that he was actually going to pull off the transition from cheeky Britpop pretty boy to something more elusive and interesting. So he hardly needs Gorillaz to hide behind these days, you might think. These days, he can do whatever he wants; scoring a zany pop-dance-hip hop crossover hit one minute, playing the Britpop elder statesman the next, and then getting away with some act of supreme self-indulgence like writing an opera about monkeys and pigs.

The feeling you get from Plastic Beach is that Albarn doesn't seem particularly bothered about scoring the big hit single this time around. The album contains nothing as straightforwardly tuneful or downright fun as 'Feel Good Inc' or 'DARE'. Instead, there's a surfeit of great music, referencing everything from cosmic disco to a 14th-century guide to contemplative prayer written in the mystical tradition of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite. Again, anyone keeping an eye of Albarn's wildly disperate projects over the last decade will not bat an eyelid at this. What might surprise you this time round, however, is that most of the great songs showcase Albarn's vocals rather than his roll-call of collaborators. It's not until the album's forth track, the twinkling, clinking 'Rhinestone Eyes' that Plastic Beach really takes off, following the Outkast-like 'Welcome to the World of Plastic Beach' featuring a very laid back Snoop Dog, and 'White Flag', which has some pretty flute on it but never ingratiates itself thanks to a charmless vocal from Bashy. Both 'Rhinestone Eyes' and 'Empire Ants' make great use of the bruised soul that has developed in Albarn's voice. The latter is a trippy, tripped-out cowboy ballad and is one of the album's loveliest moments.

In fact, a sense of melancholy and loneliness permeates Plastic Beach, and is the only tangible link in the music to the supposed concept of the album. For evidence look no further than 'Up on Melancholy Hill' with its fuzzy 80s synths or 'Broken', a terrific down-tempo electro-lullaby, its sound not far off from the yearning synthpop of Sébastien Tellier's Sexuality of Air's dreamy Moon Safari. If Plastic Beach confirms one thing, it's that these quiet, moody moments are where Albarn's songwriting strengths now lie. Happily, he seems aware of this and comfortable with it, giving plenty of room in the music to express that lachrymose catch in his voice.

So is Plastic Beach, underneath its goonish neon veneer, actually a work of tasteful miserablism? Not really, it's just that its best moments could definitely fall into that category. Of the rest, first single 'Stylo' is as good as it gets: an assured electro-funk work out which is so confident in its deployment of rolling, aquatic bass that it isn't even bothered about not having a proper chorus, instead resting its hopes of chart success on the eruption of Bobby Womack's ground-shaking voice halfway through. At the other end of the quality spectrum, there's 'Superfast Jellyfish'. A tongue-in-cheek hip hop romp featuring both De La Soul and Super Furry Animals' Gruff Rhys must have sounded good on paper. The reality is simply irritating. It's the album's one real misstep, although a feeling of forced jollity does much to lessen the great 'what the fuck?' joy of hearing vocal contributions from Mark E Smith on 'Glitter Freeze' and Lou Reed on 'Some Kind of Nature'.

The fact that these tracks are not the ones to which you will most likely return says a lot about where Damon Albarn's muse is at right now. It might also mean he ends up with a less successful Gorillaz album than the last two, and that in turn might lead him to question the cartoon critters' relevance to his music. If that happens then it will probably be a good thing. Make no mistake; the good tracks on Plastic Beach are some of best that Albarn has released. They are also some of the most subtle, refined and unshowy musical statements he has made. For a man whose name has at certain points been used almost as a synonym for artistic conceit and showbiz machination, that is really saying something. Will this mark the start of a new phase is his artistic development? Maybe; after all, if there's one thing we've established, it that at this point, he can do whatever he wants.

Richard Morris

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