Review: Plastic Beach by Gorillaz

The animated character Murdoc Niccals, bassist and spokesperson for Gorillaz, has declared that Plastic Beach will likely be the band’s last outing. I doubt that statement very much, because (a) it came from a fictional character; (b) the unique nature of the band requires only Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett to collaborate, other members can come and go; (c) Albarn said the same thing after Demon Days; and (c) this album seems a very odd note on which to end.

Like fellow animated band Dethklok, Gorillaz have an elaborate, ongoing mythology that listeners can take or leave with the music. It gets pretty convoluted, so I’m not going to use this review to dive into what’s happening with Murdoc et al. It is important to note, however, that after “El Mañana,” the final single off Demon Days, guitarist Noodle went missing. Or possibly died, the mythology is never very clear. As a result, there is virtually no guitar on Plastic Beach. The album is more electronic than rock and more atmospheric than radio-ready. You won’t hear anything that rivals the instantly irrepressible bass line of “Feel Good, Inc.” or the crashing drums of “Clint Eastwood.” Nothing here will grab you.

Warning out of the way, I urge you not to judge the album on first listen. I had to listen three times, beginning to end, before I really got it. It doesn’t offer as flawless a package as Demon Days, nor does it offer the sprawling stylistic hopscotch of the self-titled debut. Plastic Beach embraces a different sort of experimental spirit. Albarn subtly applies elements of whatever unconventional styles he needs — traditional Eastern music, electronica, dub, commercial jingles — in the interest of building an overarching mood. That mood, a weird mixture of melancholy and a satirical snicker, glues the album together, creating the most consistent release to date.

I have nothing but good things to say about Plastic Beach as an album, but once I start breaking down the track list, and reviewing individual three and four minute sections, I can’t help but sound critical. “Stylo,” for example, is an odd choice for a single, between the unknown pronunciation of its title and lack of any lyrical hook. It was no doubt chosen as a single to make the most of its high-profile guest voices, ubiquitous MC Mos Def and longtime music industry vet Bobby Womack. “Superfast Jellyfish” seems a more likely single, but was likely deemed too goofy and too cartoony. “On Melancholy Hill” is lined up to be the third single, but I can’t imagine why, as it could just as easily be a song by Blur or The Good, The Bad, and the Queen.

The funny thing is, in spite of these criticisms, I really love all of these songs. I could point out minor flaws in every song, but each one also has some really clever, charming idea at its heart. “Glitter Freeze” is repetitive, but keeps repeating a really catchy, slightly escalating keyboard riff. “Some Kind of Nature” edits Lou Reed’s voice to somehow make him sound even choppier. “Sweepstakes” keeps adding successive layers of keyboards, drums, and brass over a short but complex verse rapped by Mos Def. My favorite track, “Empire Ants,” is divided in half, first with Albarn’s crooning over lightly echoing piano, second with Yukimi Nagano’s (of Swedish band Little Dragon) ethereal voice over the raised volume of an electronic arrangement mirroring the first half’s piano.

There’s a lot going on here, successful and otherwise. I didn’t even get around to mentioning guest spots by Snoop Dogg and Mick Jones. It’s a hard thing to qualify, which is why I’m glad I don’t use a review system that randomly assigns letter grades.

In my last review, on Spoon’s Transference, I mentioned Radiohead’s successful venture into electronic music, Kid AI wish I had held off on that, as it’s infinitely more applicable here. Your thoughts on Plastic Beach and where it stands in the Gorillaz library should be directly proportional to your thoughts on Kid A. They’re both densely packed deviations from previous material, albums that reward multiple listens, and most successful at establishing mood. I’m still looking forward to future releases, regardless of what this guy says: