20 Years In, Gorillaz Are Still Imagining Pop's Future

The latest release from Damon Albarn’s ever-evolving project Gorillaz is one of the most diverse, wide-open, and free-flowing LPs the cartoon band has released in its 20-year history. That’s saying something; Albarn has always proposed Gorillaz as a space beyond and between pop music’s borders, and over the decades everyone from Mark E. Smith to Bobby Womack to Pusha T has felt at home swinging by to chill. It’s a project that feels especially worthwhile in the era of Brexit and hyper-nationalism, even if the albums it produces can often be so intentionally all-over-the place as to sometimes seem nowhere at all.

On Song Machine: Season One — Strange Timez, the number of guests could violate a nightclub fire code. The release brings together tracks from the first season of Song Machine, an ongoing web series of Gorillaz songs and videos released throughout the year. Robert Smith of the Cure is at his bedhead best on the dream-disco title track; Beck sashays through the shiny California ennui of “The Valley of the Pagans”; St. Vincent’s Annie Clark sings along over New Wave synths and electro-beat baubles on “Chalk Tablet Towers”; and L.A. rapper Schoolboy Q freestyles over the robot-pop of “Pac-Man.”  The big get is Elton John, who appears on the lovely “The Pink Phantom,” evoking his rocket-man mortality in lyrics about a sky made of diamonds and a world that’s fallen silent, alongside a sumptuous vocal from Atlanta rapper-singer 6lack. And that’s just the first six songs. The vertiginous feeling of pleasurable overkill fits Albarn’s own sense of warm, spaced-out malaise on several songs: “My head is spinning, suspended in a twilight web that keeps on giving,” he sings on “Strange Timez.” 

Albarn has said he had no idea where he was going when Gorillaz started working on the Song Machine project. He sees it as the product of a “season” of music, not an album. Coherence has never really been a hallmark of the Gorillaz aesthetic anyway, but this set of songs isn’t a mess, either; several moments offer interesting cross-generational riffs on U.K. music history. On “Momentary Bliss,” young politically-radical rapper Slowthai and the punk duo Slaves hop on the track and pay wild, jubilant tribute to the two-tone ska of the Specials and the English Beat; “Opium” (with the Atlanta rap duo Earthgang) is soulful echo of Eighties acid house; and “Aries” is such a note-perfect New Order homage that it features New Order’s Peter Hook on bass.

As always, Albarn’s ability to create dubby, drifting synthetic beauty — a kind of futurist pastoralism — remains a key ingredient to his music’s distracted wonder. “I’ve been standing on a beach in the distance,” he sings on “Aries,” “and even though I’m far away, can you see my red light waiting to turn green?” Finding unlikely connections across wide chasms, conversation out of global pop’s babble, is what his music does well.

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