Christmas morning was hotly anticipated by Gorillaz fans in 2010, as the promised free album The Fall became available to fan club members just after Santa snatched his cookies and dropped his load. For some, the result is a stripped & exhilarating journey of digital experimentation and adventure on the road in unfamiliar territories. For others, it’s a waste of self-indulgent minimalist electronic meandering with mere shades of promise. Walking the line is an interesting challenge that depends largely on the listener’s mood.
When approached free of context as a successor to Plastic Beach, the album is a bizarre disappointment, a music-app album sketchbook riddled with acoustics, melodica, ukelele and a blizzard of Korg/Moog synths. That’s an unfairly dismissive depiction, however, given that – as frontman Damon Albarn promised early on – The Fall is a composition of fifteen road-diary tracks, loaded with atmospheric grooves and ambient textures to evoke a timepiece feeling rather than drive home an artistic point.
There’s certainly a personal atmosphere to the entirety of The Fall, which largely consists of instrumentally-driven stripped songs that circle the drain of electro-pop without fully taking the plunge into the over-pillaged mundanity of a genre that Radiohead set fire to with Kid A, and a hundred thousand bands have since hammered to death while surfing the hipster tides.
Spanning and weaving blip-groove designs between the galaxies of pop, hip-hop, dubstep and thoughtful acoustics, The Fall – recorded with iPad applications during the group’s North American tour in the second half of the year – is a mix of non-contextually dismissible instrumental/sound collage tracks and beautiful, if understated, rainy-day melodies. Hints of modern Brit-pop that follow the Plastic Beach lineage – such as the gorgeously dreamy uke/synth creeping chant of Revolving Doors or future-spazz key freakout of The Snake In Dallas – are countered by slow-beat stony experimentals like Little Pink Plastic Bags and the apocalyptic breeze of Amarillo. It’s a fascinating mix, but ultimately outweighed by its own wasted electro-meandering, most clearly defined in The Speak It Mountains and California And The Slipping Of The Sun (let’s just not discuss the yodel-fest final track).
Albarn remains true to the Gorillaz architectural sound aesthetic, which along with its contextual origins qualify the record for the brand title. The homemade vibe, slightly lo-fi but dodging an air of cheapness, will throw off the uninformed listener who’s anticipating the next Stylo or, somehow even still, holding out for another 19-2000.
Admittedly, disappointment did set in the morning before release when bass-heavy dark-shade instrumental Phoner To Arizona teased the album ahead of its delivery. Simply designed soft-fuzz beats, synth riffs and, eventually, mangled vocals serve merely as a cold-electro introduction to the album, setting the palette tone by jarring expectations off the rails immediately.
As The Fall unfolds, it becomes clear that initial impressions are not to be trusted, for both good and ill.
The aching beauty of Hillbilly Man‘s dream-gliding opening riff is squandered a minute in, when a sudden shift to minimalist reggae-dub invokes an entirely different sensation beneath Albarn’s road-ragged falsetto. Unfortunately it brings to mind the “to the left, to the left, to the right…” part of that hellish old Tootsee Roll track. Not a welcome reminder of the pep-rally horrors of 1994.
The electronic strength of The Fall hits a high stride in The Joplin Spider, a haunting collage of voices and whispered synths before a buzz-shock tone jars the senses clear for a highly infective nightmare-rowboat nursery rhyme. Like much of the album, the song teases greatness, hitting a crest of impeccable design amidst a storm of relatively disposable sonic accompaniments.
In Aspen Forest, the looped sound of electronic interference usually heard just before a nearby cellphone rings is supplemented by 8-bit blipping computer scales, giving way to a thumping piano melody. Then, without warning, a right-hook of soul comes by way of Bobby in Phoenix, featuring touring partner and Plastic Beach guest Bobby Womack doing what he does best over a slow-croon acoustic and seashore sound effects, a half-sibling to Empire Ants.
As a cellophane decoration description, The Fall sounds exactly like what it consists of: the self-indulgent time-passing recordings of a prodigally prolific musician flexing a high-stride point in his career, having taken the time to open himself to the alien American landscape unfolding before him across the miles between shows and interpret them through his own artistic lens. It’s a lovely musical Christmas gift, a stripped experiment free of the standard frills and studio polish that puts a more intimate, if less magnetic, shine on the Gorillaz aesthetic.
Info on each track and credit/liner notes for The Fall is available here.
Reviews published prior to February 23, 2015 used a 1-5 star rating system.