"Plastic Beach" by Gorillaz

Gorillaz
Plastic Beach

EMI Records
2010

Review

It took Danger Mouse to follow up what Dan the Automator did on the Gorillaz debut album. For their latest album, "Plastic Beach", Damon Albarn goes at it alone with varying degrees of success. Reportedly this album may not have necessarily have started life as an actual Gorillaz project and in some regards, it shows. For me, Gorillaz musically are about taking elements from different parts of popular music and combining them into one big stew with the mindset of a mashup DJ with Albarn's considerable energy and songwriting abilities as the musical driving force. However, if this album is any indication, I think the previous efforts benefited from having a super producer behind the boards to keep things cohesive and consistent. So the question remains: can the Gorillaz collective of collaborators come together to create another tasty slice of popular music mashup gumbo? Well, mostly. Come on through to find out why.

So by now you must have heard the lead-off single - "Stylo". If not, here's the video complete with Bruce Willis channeling Kurt Russel in "Death Proof"

(A brief digression, I'm not sure how I feel about Gorillaz leap to computer graphics. They look scarier, don't they?)

My experience with "Stylo" is a good way of explaining how I feel about a lot of this album. My first impression from the lead single off the new Gorrilaz album was that I thought it was really weird with its synth-heavy Knight Rider inspired bassline (I wonder if Damon Albarn liked "500 Days of Summer"?). The song didn't really seem concerned with - you know - trying to be an actual song...at least at first. Bobby Womack croons something similar to a chorus with his "Is it loooooove" screaming. Mos Def comes in heavily obfuscated behind a megaphone and if you listen closely you can hear some ill lyrics. I just wished there was a bit more cohesion to the overall track and I felt mildly disappointed as I was really looking for something great behind Mos Def's possession of Russel. Then a strange thing happened and the song infected my head like an alien parasite and I started to like it more and more. Then I couldn't get that "movin on, movin on, comin on strong and movin on". It was strange how I did a complete 180 and the track went from something that I just could not accept into something that wouldn't leave me alone. As previously stated, for me a lot of this album is exactly like that. There weren't many tracks here that "clicked" right away and in that regard, it almost didn't feel like a Gorillaz album. Sure all the pieces were there (MC's to possess Russel, a complete lack of any specific genre classification, strange and random influences) but there seemed to be something missing there for me that I just could not place.

Take for instance Snoop Dee-Oh-Double-Gee's appearance on "Welcome To The World Of The Plastic Beach". That one doesn't venture too far outside of the weirdville stylings of "Stylo". It does manage to be a bit more catchy thanks to some horns that reminded me of early RJD2. Snoop Dogg is subdued, even for Snoop Dogg. Again, this one didn't grab me right away. However, after a few listens Snoop's charisma and a more catchy overall sound combined with some eco-conscious lyrics make for an entertaining track that just takes a bit for your mind to adapt to.

Half of the album adhere's to this general pattern of what I'll call "first listen WTF + wow after a few listens" - as in, the first listen of the song your probably going to say "WTF" to yourself more than a few times, especially if you are a fan of "Gorillaz" and "Demon Days". But eventually, it'll make sense to you and you'll enjoy the tracks. Songs in this category are the previously mentioned "Stylo" and "Welcome To The World Of The Plastic Beach" as well as "Rhinestone Eyes" and "Some Kind Of Nature" (featuring a surprisingly comfortable Lou Reed).

The other half of the album just sounds a bit too raw and unpolished - almost like sketches or demos that never made it past the first draft. The worst offender in this category is "Sweepstakes" where a sparse, simple beat is combined with random bursts of blips, bloops, and beats and eventually horns. Mos Def sounds surprisingly hype over the very different beat but ultimately it just sort of falls apart and never really comes together as each element seems to be doing its own thing.

There are however three moments of pop perfection. I am referring to "Empire Ants", "On Melancholy Hill" and "Broken". These three songs together in a nice triptych would make an incredible EP with "Empire Ants" being the album's high point. That song is a nice little relaxing lullaby that explodes into an orgy of electronic goodness that fits in with the best of someone like Dntel.

Overall this is an album that suffers from the lack of a producer to keep it all together. There are so many elements here and while I can't fault Damon Albarn and company for taking chances, I feel that many long term Gorillaz fans who are looking for another classic album are going to feel a bit let down. However, there is a really really good album here and hence some amazing songs - if you discount some of the ones that don't work. For the ones that do work, many of them are going to take a few listens for them to grow on you. If you aren't a superfan (like me, for example - I have the freaking vinyl toys and a concert DVD) you'll probably want to listen to most of the tracks here before you decide to pick this up. But if you love good music, at least check out "Empire Ants", "On Melancholy Hill", and "Broken" as these are excellent examples of what Gorillaz at their absolute best are capable of.

...now, let's get a super producer for the next one. Madlib? Nah, he'd want to change the name of the band =P

3.600 out of 5

Track Ratings

1. Orchestral Intro (01:09)
2. Welcome to the World of the Plastic Beach (03:35) 4
3. White Flag (03:43) 3
4. Rhinestone Eyes (03:20) 3
5. Stylo (04:30) 4
6. Superfast Jellyfish (02:54) 3
7. Empire Ants (04:43) 5
8. Glitter Freeze (04:03) 3
9. Some Kind of Nature (02:59) 4
10. On Melancholy Hill (03:53) 5
11. Broken (03:17) 5
12. Sweepstakes (05:20) 2
13. Plastic Beach (03:47) 4
14. To Binge (03:55) 3
15. Cloud of Unknowing (03:06) 3
16. Pirate Jet (02:32) 3