Damon Albarn has truly transcended creative bliss in recent years. With more side-projects than most can keep track of, Gorillaz has still been his most consistently intriguing project and this latest collaborator filled record is no disappointment. Leaning heavily on the pop and hip hop side of project, he pulls some of the best names and infuses them in his great and fearless writing for a record that will grow on listeners with every listen. Recruiting “Rogue One” star Ben Mendelsohn to construct a spoken-word narrative he even creates magic in the album’s less musical moments as well.
Opening this genuine beast of an album on some cutting tech-based commentary, things quickly open up to the beat-driven “Ascension (feat. Vince Staples).” The bouncy, glitch-filled track is a sonic marvel, while being filled with as much cutting racial commentary as it is brash lyrics. Moving to groovy, club track on “Strobelite (feat. Peven Everett)” it’s clear Albarn hasn’t lost his endless ability to right flawless grooves for any genre, and the vocals cut through like velvet, along with the satisfying harmonies. On the overdriven bass-charged “Saturnz Barz (feat. Popcaan)” things switch to a reggae-rap style full of auto-tune, that works in Albarn’s distant vocal sections but just feels a little to straightforward as a rap track otherwise. Alternatively “Momentz (feat. De La Soul)” goes from its excitement building intro to a frantic beat, mixing Albarn’s quirky production and De La Soul’s over-the-top style for a perfect marriage of both of their techniques, especially on the falsetto hooks.
Once again with an on-the-nose interlude that hits almost to bluntly, things move to the second section of the album. “Submission (feat. Danny Brown & Kelela)” takes a steady groovy and lets Kelela’s creamy vocals slide down like desert over the heavenly background notes. Not surprising is Brown’s arrival after the most bizarre section of the song, going into his classic off-kilter style, only a little tame compared to his latest release. With roaring guitars it’s haunting to hear the powerful return of an icon on “Charger (feat. Grace Jones)” which uses every ounce of Jones attitude to maximum effect, along with amazing production and vocal trade-offs for one of the album’s most catchy tracks.
Recalling the Clash to transition to his next section, Albarn nods to some of his collaborators sharply. “Andromeda (feat. D.R.A.M.)” booms along with spacey synths and a thunderous groove, as addictive as Albarn’s melodies have ever been, and although he adds a catchy melody D.R.A.M. does feel somewhat underused here. Eleven songs in we hear the first solely Gorillaz track on “Busted and Blue” and it doesn’t disappoint. Hitting on a high-production take on a crooner track, Albarn creates an epic soundscape to deliver his solo culmination of the start of the album, with a powerful simplicity in the overall melodies it brings.
Pushing the background narrative further it’s cool to see what Albarn has pulled out of Mendelsohn in such small chunks. On the creepy chug of “Carnival (feat. Anthony Hamilton) falsetto vocals mix with dub-step undertones in an oddly effective way thanks to the emotional strings that persist throughout. Finding the best middle-ground for every artist involved on “Let Me Out (feat. Mavis Staples & Pusha T) the trio rotate vocal duties elegantly, trading off without ever feeling too out of place, finding Albarn at his genre-blending peak while making a killer track while he’s at it.
Racking up the excitement as the elevator finally reaches the top, the fun seems ready to burst. Strangely though it’s extremely low-key as “Sex Murder Party (feat. Jamie Principle & Zebra Katz)” making for a moody and more subtly exciting track on the album, that only suffers from the misdirection the album sets it up with. Hitting the hype right “She’s My Collar (feat. Kali Uchis) has thumping drums and cutting bass and melodies and Albarn’s vocals cut in right with his classic, dark emotion.
Entering the homestretch, the party takes a demented turn. Lead single “Hallelujah Money (feat. Benjamin Clementine)” feels even more satisfying at this moment in the record, with Clementine’s peculiar vocals hitting all the right odd tones and religious overtones greatly. The spooky production mixed with Clementine’s vocals and spoken-word section, along with Albarn’s vocals make for one of the most powerful moments on the record, elevated by its context within the record. Closing on a more upbeat note “We Got The Power (feat. Jehnny Beth)” goes for frantic energy and uplifting harmony. Maxing out on the excitement Savages’ Beth can deliver, the track lights up all the darkness of the album to end on something inspiring.
Words by Owen Maxwell