Wednesday, March 10, 2010

For We Are Living In a Digital World...

Plastic Beach

There are many things to expect from a Gorillaz album. I think, with two prior full-lengths and a pair of B-Side collections, Damon Albarn has established a decent set of parameters. This is a quietly experimental band, of course, but their sound is fairly well established. You know when you're listening to Gorillaz.

For example, we know to expect a fusion of hip-hop and pop. Plastic Beach delivers there with the superb "Superfast Jellyfish," featuring Demon Days highlights De La Soul. You'll remember them from "Feel Good, Inc." What we don't expect is an album lacking a "Feel Good, Inc." That is to say, Plastic Beach doesn't come ready made with a massive single. It has some great songs, many in fact, but it doesn't come with a song destined for the Top 40. This may not be a bad thing.

We've come to expect unusual collaborations. Bobby Womack, unheard from for the last twenty years, makes two rip-roaring appearances, on first single "Stylo" and on near closer "Cloud of Unknowing." What we don't expect is that Damon Albarn has given the vast majority of the spotlight here to those collaborators. He is heard on every track, at one point or another, but you don't get the feeling that this is his album, and some friends are stopping by. It feels like Gorillaz have finally become what I believe Albarn meant them to be all along; a consortium, the King Crimson of pop. (To quote Fripp, "King Crimson is not a band, it is a way of doing things.")

We can expect airtight compositions. It's a Damon Albarn project, and this is a foregone conclusion. If Blur's final offering, Think Tank, suffered one ailment, it was that the songs were hermetically sealed. There was no oxygen anywhere. This has been an ongoing issue for Albarn. In Blur, Coxon gave ragged, soulful life to the songs which Albarn so brilliantly constructed. There has never been any Coxon on Gorillaz albums (pause for *sigh*). Demon Days, for all its daring, suffers the same problems as Think Tank. Aesthetically speaking, Plastic Beach has the least organic sound of anything Albarn has released. It is an album delivered from the middle of the 1980s, with synthesizers everywhere.

But here's the most unexpected thing: This is, without a doubt, Albarn's most feeling album in over ten years. I'm extensively (re; obsessively) familiar with his entire, remarkable discography, and nothing comes close to feeling like Plastic Beach, save 13, my favourite Blur album. And then he had Coxon. The highlights on this album are numerous, but none hit me so hard as "On Melancholy Hill," where, according to Damon, "you can't get what you want, but you can get me." He's only made me cry once before, back in 2003, with "Battery in Your Leg," the final track on Blur's final record. Here, Albarn taps into that vein of melancholy and sweetness which seems to belong to him alone.

The album opens as one would want a Gorillaz album to; there is pop mixed in with hip-hop and world music. But then it does a few things differently. For the most part, the hip-hop disappears. The album builds to a powerful, remarkable set of six songs that constitute the body, from "Stylo" to "On Melancholy Hill." Both the previous Gorillaz albums,irrefutably excellent in their own right, were spotty. Here, there is only one mis-step, "Broken," the removal of which would make this, dare I say it, a perfectly sequenced album. And on the way, we get insight into the remarkable talents of Damon Albarn, which continue to flower in directions nobody could have ever possibly expected.

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