Plastic Beach, Gorillaz‘ third album, does not arrive lightly. Ambitious, avant-garde and about as complex in flavor as a mouthful of Jelly Bellys, the album isn’t nearly as pop friendly as the first two Gorillaz releases; there’s little to no sign of the 19-2000‘s or Feel Good Inc‘s of yesteryear. There are strange new peaks, however, that simply dismiss outright commercial appeal ambition. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t, but evolution in the Gorillaz universe has never taken a linear path.
Jamie Hewlett provides the crucial visual aspect, but after liftoff it’s truly the Damon Albarn Project – he writes, produces, sings and plays most of the music, enlisting the supplemental powers of the single most comprehensive and bizarre collection of guests ever united on an album: Snoop Dogg, De La Soul, Lou Reed, the Clash’s Mick Jones and Mos Def all contribute, among others, with love-jam grandpa Bobby Womack lacing his inimitable soul-engine vocals through two tracks.
Opening to the sounds of waves crashing, seagulls squawking and a foghorn off in the distance, giving way to Snoop’s dub-funk, world-ending introduction on Welcome to the World of the Plastic Beach. It makes for a comical first impression, rhyming “in focus” with “the world is so hopeless” with perfectly pimpilicious pessimism.
Rhinestone Eyes is a dreamy, stony walk down a diamond shore, sippin’ the codeine while the drums slap slow & wet in the background and bright synth colors swirl between beats. It’s an early album highlight, abstract poetic imagery like “your rhinestone eyes are like factories far away” sprinkled with a sigh through the tropical haze. The easy vibrations are directly in line with the Gorillaz sound we’ve become such junkies for, leading into complex genre-mashing first single Stylo:
The track starts off bright, kicking in with a synth riff and Mos Def spitting a welcome ramp-up rhyme to Albarn’s gentle flow. His bell-bottom wail is remarkable, but once Womack starts in it’s hard to feel anything but a muted sense of misplaced blaxploitation-callback jive, a la Jackie Brown. It’s a soul explosion where none is warranted, a burst of love revolution from left field, leading back into a Mos verse.
The album’s an immensely clever jumble, but what’s missing from Plastic Beach is the thickness to the core Gorillaz element, a central gravity beyond the shiny-junkyard-of-the-future gimmickry. Rather than centrally focusing on 2D and Murdoc, the songs are a patchwork of effects and electro-rap synth-orchestra dubbiness built around a loose future-environmental theme and guest appearances. Gruff Rhys and De La Soul feature on fun Spongebobbish rap-slap Superfast Jellyfish, which comes off as equal parts commercial spoof and annoying cartoon decimation of fast food culture. The chorus is an infectious ditty that digs into your head like a shiny happy little tick. As I said when the track first surfaced, it sounds like Z-Trip, De La Soul and Albarn got together to write a commercial jingle while candyflipping with a gallon of Mr. Bubble.
Empire Ants would be a better transition from Rhinestone Eyes, with Little Dragon’s offbeat melody buoying sweetly over a beautifully shimmering groove, buzzy bass and twinkling synths. It’s further evidence that Albarn’s collaboration choices are, on paper, a schizophrenic patchwork of madness, but once set in motion a brilliant lightshow of talent sets a new high-water mark for collective efforts. A highlight performance arrives in the form of Lou Reed rapping, “Well, me, I like plastics and digital foils” and trying to protect the girls from spiritual poisons over a chemical bounce on Some Kind of Nature, with oddly inspirational lyrics of a man trying to make the best of the commercial-industrial wasteland around him. It’s a fascinating animal, a futuristic star-lounge jam with sunshine on the mind.
Addictive beats, otherworldly effects and the occasional super-gravitational black hole of a hook ensure that Plastic Beach will be held in high regard. The 80’s love-pop throwback instrumentation of On Melancholy Hill is heart-brimmingly adorable and as catchy as any ditty Air’s come up with, as Albarn’s Vicodin tenor softly washes through in passive fashion.
There’s kneejerk fault to be found in the missed opportunity for a smash hit, but ultimately it’s missing the point entirely. Plastic Beach is a snapshot of a wildly colorful jungle of influence & inspiration, a futuristic clusterfuck that takes repeated listens to settle in – but once the clouds of alien adaptation break, a strange new sun shines through, and the Gorillaz soar to entirely new heights.
Reviews published prior to February 23, 2015 used a 1-5 star rating system.