I’m probably the biggest Damon Albarn fan you know. It started for me when I first heard “Feel Good Inc.” in an iPod commercial (remember these??). The ethereal guitars juxtaposed with a punching bass and maniacal laughter was the freshest sound I’d ever heard. I immediately listened to Demon Days which was as far as I can recall the first full album I ever listened to on my own volition. At this point I was indoctrinated. From here I became a massive Blur fan. I spent days tracking down a ticket to see the band in 2015 when they played their first NYC show in 16 years at a 550-capacity Brooklyn club. I went on to literally lose my voice during their three song encore of “Beetlebum” -> “Trouble in the Message Centre” -> “Song 2”. Incredible set. Basically, I’d follow Damon to the ends of the Earth. I’ve drunk the Kool-Aid. I’m fanboy incarnate.
But I come to you today not with praise but rather disappointment. I feel genuinely petty for doing this after a dozen years of Damon’s music bettering my life (which is truthfully a pretty sad thing to feel considering he’ll never see or care about my opinion). I can’t hide from my feelings though: these new Gorillaz tracks feel like an abandonment of their audience.
Let’s start with the music video for what seems to be their big lead single, “Saturnz Barz (Spirit House)”:
The video begins with Jamie Hewlett’s trademark characters rolling through their dystopian world. I’m thrilled to see the classic aesthetic once more. Then music starts to fade in…. it sounds like one of those “club bangers” the kids these days “bang” to. Is that Vince Staples? Hey, I like Vince Staples! But is this supposed to be a Gorillaz song? It doesn’t sound–
And then it cuts out. I’m not sure what to think but I’m immediately drawn back in by a funny sequence in which the virtual band members slump around a haunted house. They’ve still got those same cockney accents from years ago. It’s a fun and good time. The anticipation is reaching a fever pitch. Then, Noodle drops the needle on a record and my face contorts to a frown.
What I’m hearing sounds nothing unlike the dime-a-dozen auto-tuned crooner tracks that populate the Top 40 these days. I mean, that’s the scene that the feature artist Popcaan populates so I guess it’s no surprise. Present is the overblown dub bass and mumbly vocals associated with him and his contemporaries. If you can’t tell, I’m not a fan of this musical movement but that doesn’t really matter since it’s aimed at an audience younger than me.
But this encapsulates the problem here: why is Damon going all-in on this subgenre that’s sure to alienate long-time fans like myself? Gorillaz haven’t put out an album in seven years and their most beloved work dates back to the first half of the 2000s. The people who have affection for them are not teenage party kids, they’re people in their mid-20s and older that likely heard “Clint Eastwood” or “Feel Good Inc.” when they were in radio rotation. I understand the need to be relevant but it shouldn’t happen at the deficit of your existing fanbase.
This is a trend accentuated in a different way on the track “Ascension”. This is the Vince Staples song previewed in the above music video and the full version is basically that snippet drawn out for two more minutes. I actually quite like Vince Staples. His 2015 album Summertime ’06 was one of the better rap debuts I’ve heard in years, and his output has remained solid since then. But this Gorillaz track is barely recognizable as such. I wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow if this showed up on a Vince Staples project without any mention of Damon’s involvement. It works as a shallow but fun hype-inducing banger but as the *opening track* on a Gorillaz album? Not at all.
It’s nothing new for Gorillaz to write songs where Damon takes a backseat to the feature artists but they’ve always worked by sounds like a Gorillaz song first and foremost. “Ascension” and “Saturnz Barz (Spirit House)” throw that out the window in order to fit in with your usual 2017 radio fare, leaving people like me to appeal to an audience for which music is a string of same-sounding disposable club hits. Emphasis on disposable: these songs will not be remembered in the way that an “On Melancholy Hill” or “Tomorrow Comes Today” have been. There are no infectious melodies or catchy hooks, just club noise.
The other two new tracks are more acceptable but still lacking. “Andromeda” is a syrupy, ethereal groover that features another Top 40 star by way of D.R.A.M. playing backup to Damon (side note: the cover of D.R.A.M.’s album from last year is the greatest of things). “We Got the Power” is a good-feels empowerment jam featuring a liberated performance by Savages frontwoman Jehnny Beth (Savages is a great all-female punk band you should be listening to). Both of these tracks feel half-baked though, be it with Andromeda’s weightless production values or We Get the Power’s criminally short length that ends just as it revs up.
If this is the best foot that Gorillaz have to put forward then I’m very worried that Humanz will be an underwhelming album. I’m holding out hope though. For one, there are some exciting features across the rest of the tracklisting including Danny Brown, Mavis Staples and De La Soul (who have been involved with multiple of Gorillaz’ biggest hits). Also, Damon saw fit to include the track “Hallelujah Money” featuring avant-garde singer Benjamin Clementine, which I loved for its experimental sound and poetic politics when it was released back in January.
I guess we’ll see how things pan out on April 28th. These tracks were a massive disappointment though.