The thing you realize after watching the documentary Bananaz - its that Damon Albarn failed at making the records he wanted to with the first two Gorillaz albums. Both times Albarn attempted to produce the records by himself and got stalled, then Dan the Automator and Danger Mouse were each respectively called in to finish Albarn’s songs, collaborations, and sketches into listenable wholes. So the albums, while clearly the work of Albarn - they aren’t complete for him. Gorillaz started out as a place to play for Albarn and Jamie Hewlett, a place to collaborate and screw around, to try out ideas. The entire concept of the Gorillaz, as a 21st century play on the Banana Splits and the Monkeys and the Archies, is a nice middle finger up to the pop establishment of the early 00s. Gorillaz was anti-boy band back when that meant something, and many people have pointed out that Albarn probably hated boy bands because of the way Blur was sold to the UK,particularly with his face. Then Blur broke up (after dropping their best album) and Gorillaz was the only place left for Albarn (actually for either of them) to express himself. Albarn is a creature of ego, and that probably sounds worse that I’m intending it to.
There are always competing levels of engagement and/or context with any Gorillaz album. Plastic Beach is even more complex. First as always, there are the songs and the album itself - whether or not you, as the listener, like it. After that - the narrative of the album as a whole (as Plastic Beach is a concept album), the context of how the fictional band Gorillaz would record this album (this is a “Murdoc” album according to the narrative, Demon Days was a “Noodle” album), the idea of the Gorillaz as a capitalist mechanism to sell shit, like the Monkees (this album comes with new locations, vehicles, and 3rd-gen character redesigns - none of which actually exist), and of course what Damon Albarn has done to create the album - which is to say, who he got to appear on it, and what that signifies in and of itself. Gorillaz is a 21st century project as it is larger than just songs on wax, and how much work/knowledge the audience brings to their time with it. If you are a Jamie Hewllet fan, who’s been reading all his comics for years, Gorillaz is a completely different experience if you’ve never heard of the him before this. There is a matrix of “if, then” questions that determine what you can and will take away from Gorillaz as a project, most of them are deliberate on Albarn and Hewlett’s part, some of them aren’t (consider - this is the first Gorillaz project without any overt George Romero zombie or Exorcist references - did you know that? Do you care? Do I?). The idea of collaboration from as many areas of music as possible, and to unite various strains of music from around the world, from rock and roll history, from genres that are completely opposite to one another, that’s definitely been the overt intent of the Gorillaz project. Which is why you have Lou Reed and the Lebanese National Orchestra on the same record. The history of pop according to the Gorillaz skips over Beatles/Stones/Who/Kinks archetypes that Britpop trafficked in, even as it plays on them. Maybe less overt is that in making albums that attempt to do something that wide, Albarn ends up placing himself in that same conversation. Which, as I said, takes a massive amount of ego, even to do so accidentally. So rather than collaborating with giants and laughing that wow, we have Paul McCartney doing the same thing on our album that he did on the Beach Boys’ Smile, Albarn is engaging these people as equals. Which means that he definitely gets better work out of them, but it also means that he actually thinks that his work is as good as Reed, Mark E. Smith, De La Soul, and Snoop Dogg. The surviving members of the Clash are basically part of the band at this point, which would have sounded ridiculous ten years ago, but here it is. Instead of coming across as a piece of egomania, though, it works. That’s not what makes Plastic Beach remarkable, in fact, Plastic Beach being as good as it is flies in the face of all historical precedent. Bands playing with their heroes nearly always results in shit. And make no bones about it, these are his heroes (watch that clip of Albarn in the studio with Bobby Womack where he absolutely fawns over him, because he’s BOBBY FUCKING WOMACK), and he’s writing himself into their histories.
But - you have to go “who gives a shit, is it any good to listen to”, and thankfully Plastic Beach is. Demon Days is probably the more cohesive and conventionally beautiful album, but Demon Days feels a lot more worked-over, which is likely because that’s Dangermouse’s production style. Demon Days felt like a closely-hewn performance piece (fittingly, the Gorillaz team worked on a full-tilt chinese opera between the two albums). Plastic Beach feels like it’s a picture of the moment - the Lebanese orchestra playing dancehall, bizarre sample-based commercial parodies, etc. Most importantly there is a strange triumvirate of themes - ecological collapse, the use of fable (Albarn described the story as something like Gulliver’s Travels), and Albarn’s own personal emotional state. That last one is important, I’ll come back to it. As much as Albarn is making albums with an eye for history, there is a “casting” aspect to the album - Gruff Rhys’ voice is wisely chosen as the most commercial and sunny of the moment (and subtly acknowledges that the concept of Gorillaz was prototyped on the Super Furry Animals+Pete Fowler’s Guerilla), Mos Def is the carnival barker villain of the piece, Albarn himself is the fictional singer 2D, Yumiki Nagano is Noodle/the albums voice of reason (previously played by Nenah Cherry and Miho Hatori). The idea of the world as an organism is something that’s there on Demon Days, but it was touched upon rather than the focus. On Plastic Beach, every song is aware of a world that is on the brink of either disaster or massive, unknowable change. The titular plastic beach is a great symbol for anything and everything that anyone here could want it to be. For Albarn (and everyone here, as they are all clearly writing lyrics without his input beyond quality control), the fictional oddness, the world falling apart, and the personal - they are all the same thing. There is no division between the large-scale and the private, the “green” intentions and the cool concept album conceit. Plastic Beach never feels like a message record because of the way those ideas permeate into one another - you are never being preached to because of how largely this is looming on Albarn’s headspace.
So I said that Albarn sees himself as these great artists’ equal, but that’s not exactly true - his voice is the best sound made on the record, and he knows it. Whether he’s backing up/dueting with someone or on his own. His voice has developed this rich, sad timbre to it. He’s not a young guy anymore and his voice reflects a lot of regret. With the exception of Bobby Womack, who can only be described as supernatural, no one comes close to being as emotionally devastating as Albarn is. “Broken” is probably the best job he’s ever done on a song, nevermind that it captures the exact experience of living in 2010 in one line “...In our eyes, every time they meet, it’s by the light of the plasma screens, we keep switched on, all through the night while we sleep”. The Arcade Fire wrote a whole incredibly overwrought album to get to that feeling and here it’s tossed off mid-verse. Albarn has more to do than dwell on it, it doesn’t even get a whole song. The highlights are spread out though - “Superfast Jellyfish” is all the greatness of the De La Soul is Dead skits and a great, endlessly contagious commercial jingle wrapped into one. “Sweepstakes” is the song Mos Def was born to make, equally about the fast-talking snaekoil saleman aspect to rap while still delivering a monster one. “On Melancholy Hill” sounds like a timelost White Album cut. “Cloud of Unknowing” defines hope in the face of all available evidence, and how sad that can be. Both of Yumiki Nagano’s contributions create a whole storied relationship between two people in the fewest possible sketched points, and are beautiful in and of themselves. The title track performs the minor miracle of reuniting the Clash to create something that sounds nothing like the Clash, but something entirely new. “Pirate Jet” rides out on a morbid chant to the ever-circling skeletal family plastic eating people. The centerpiece is “Rhinestone Eyes”, which features Albarn sampling himself (the unreleased “Electric Shock”) and capturing the spot where the concept meets the present, simply by delineating details “Helicopters fly over the beach, same time everyday, same routine. A clear target in summer, when skies are blue. It’s part of the noise when winter comes, it reverberates in my lungs. Nature’s corrupted in factories far away”. The song consists mostly of keyboard riffs hissing and modulating around one another. It’s a pop song - all of the tracks are pop songs and they never lose sight of that, to the album’s benefit. That’s the trick, taking a line like “nature’s corrupted” and making it feel 100% like an honest expression rather than a BIG STATEMENT. That’s the difference between Gorillaz and everything else - sure the other stuff, who and what it means and what they’re intending to say, that’s important. But the difference is the big stuff is personal, the fictional stuff is a snapshot, the world falling apart and the heartbreak, Albarn’s feelings are yours.
-Sean Witzke, 2010