Monday, May 1, 2017

album review: 'humanz' by gorillaz

Okay, so when I was around my second and third year in university, I hung around a crowd that organized and went to a lot of raves - what can I tell you, I had a trance and acid house phase. Anyway, even though I'd prefer to stick to bourbon and beer instead of pot or ex or psychedelics, I did have several extended conversations with these folks surrounding the culture. And I remember one evening and one statement distinctly: 'if you ever choose to get into drugs, you'll wind up liking a lot of electronic music or a lot of hip-hop - and eventually, you're going to listen to a lot of Gorillaz'. 

Yeah, probably not a fair label to stick to Damon Albarn's most successful side project after Blur by a mile, but there was some truth to it, as the repetitive song structures, deep rhythmic grooves, and ever so slightly off-kilter vibe would probably seem profound to a chemically-enhanced mind. And throw in the trippy cartoon visuals and the sort of extended, convoluted backstory, and I could see the appeal. And even though I didn't and still don't do drugs - shut up, it's allergies - I did get into Gorillaz a fair bit that year. I liked their albums, I really dug the grooves, and once I decoded the message a lot of the post-apocalyptic environmental themes did resonate.

But around the end of 2010, around the time that The Fall was released - although not explicitly because of that record, though it didn't help - I kind of fell out with Gorillaz. Never to the point where I hated them - their singles are still karaoke staples for me, and it's great vibe music that has aged ridiculously well - but I'm not really passionate about the band the same I used to be. Part of it is linked to memories of old friends I haven't spoken to in years due to me unfortunately burning some bridges, but it goes beyond that. Even from the beginning, I was never really impressed with the songwriting - and lord knows the years of post-apocalyptic art has not helped the themes feel any more original or less heavy-handed - but I also had the impression Albarn occasionally was trying for swell and bombast that were just a poor fit for his cast of characters. And again, I long ago stopped caring about the 'narrative' - as I've always said, if you need peripheral materials to explain your album, you haven't exactly succeeded as a storyteller!

But hey, now we're in 2017 and there's a new Gorillaz record, reportedly inspired by pulling thematic suggestions out of a hat and coming up with... a certain someone winning the presidency in the United States - hey, remember when that seemed so impossible? Albarn to his credit scrubbed all mention of him from the record in the lyrics - which I agree with, for the record, it'll extend the album's shelf-life - but it seems like he was going for a repeat of Plastic Beach, with tons of guest stars for the grand comeback. So, what do we get out of Humanz?

Honestly, I've given this record a lot of listens to try and place it in any sort of context with Gorillaz's previous work... and I'm not sure I can really do that. That's one of the reasons why critics have had some difficulty talking about this record - while some themes and abstract elements might overlap with previous Gorillaz's records, not only does the narrative feel increasingly disconnected and hazy, but the sound falls into a very different space as well. And if I'm being brutally honest, I have a hard time saying I like it as much as Demon Days or Plastic Beach or even the self-titled record - it is good, but if I'm trying to recall the allure of their previous records, I'm not really hearing it in the same way here.

And here's the thing: from a thematic and conceptual point of view, I can get behind this record easily, even through Albarn's traditionally underwritten lyrics. While there's always been an apocalyptic element to Gorillaz's work, here it's framed more between the lines than directly in the text, instead focusing on those who are trying to dance and hookup in order to escape a crushing weight on their conscience, pushed to greater excesses out of pure desperation. And when we do get snapshots of what that outside world really looks like, like from the pitch-black nihilism of Vince Staples against the glittery major melodies on 'Ascension' to the relentless, semi-deranged intensity of De La Soul on 'Momentz', from the lingering depression from Danny Brown on 'Submission' to Pusha T's uncharacteristic moments of questioning tension, you can tell that it's a world waiting with bated breath for the hammer to fall and real darkness to eclipse the party that's spiraling into darker territory with every percussive beat. And it's telling that 'Strobelite' evokes obsidian - absorbing everything into the inky blackness, but still reflective and glassy to deflect. And while there was earnest angst across Gorillaz's earlier work, here the mask hiding it feels more fragile than the cushion of irony and detachment that held before. Part of this I'm certain is to emphasize how flimsy social media artifice can be when linked to the self, part of it is the film stretched over the pit of paltry despair that can be much of the clubbing when you realize how powerless you really are... and yet even despite the blatant worship of wealth, there is a power and human connection that is found, albeit fleeting - and in the ultimate sign of union on the obviously titled 'We Got The Power', featuring Jehnny Beth of Savages defiantly asserting they don't need to be rescued - despite impossible odds, they've fought this before and won - we have Albarn singing opposite Noel Gallagher of Oasis, the sort of alliance that would have been anathema twenty years ago... and yet here we are.

But here's the thing: in between the guest rap verses and the moments of startling clarity, this record seems more interested in the club itself, even to the point where it feels like Damon Albarn's vocals are all the more muted and pushed aside - which of course you need to some extent in order to sell the progression, but I'd argue they don't really find the balance here. Despite the presence of Ben Mendelson on the interludes I'd say they're all pretty perfunctory, even if I did get a chuckle out of 'The Non-Conformist Oath' blatantly ripping off The Life Of Brian. And that's not counting the guest stars that are either misused or misplaced, the most glaring one being D.R.A.M. across the album. I mean, you have one of the most vibrant personalities and voices in hip-hop and you make him near-unrecognizable on songs like 'Andromeda'? Or take 'Saturnz Barz' - I don't mind Popcaan doing his thing and he nails the tone of the song, but the content doesn't really connect or mesh with Albarn here. And while I appreciate Grace Jones anchoring the wiry soul of 'Charger' or Kelela's contributions on 'Submission' and 'Busted In Blue', and Mavis Staples was damn near perfect on 'Let Me Out', one of Gorillaz' recurring issues comes back with the usage of Anthony Hamilton on 'Carnival' and Benjamin Clementine on 'Hallelujah Money', which I'd argue don't work at all. I get that they're supposed to be garish and off-putting, but you need to tilt darker or over-the-top to make this theatricality work. Here it comes dangerously close to camp, and not in a good way. 

But let's be real - that was an issue on previous records, most evident when Albarn brought in larger choirs that never seemed to have the dramatic swell they should. The larger issue circles back to the production as a whole, because this is another album that was reportedly mixed and put together on an iPad... and man, you can tell. Maybe this is just me listening specifically for more of the organic grooves that have always been the baseline for great Gorillaz songs in my books, but I was just not hearing them here, even on songs I otherwise really like. And sure, on tracks with the faster blur of snares and backing vocals like 'Ascension', or the more blatantly synthetic techno bounce of the rubbery bass beat on 'Momentz' or the hollow grinding scratch of 'Let Me Out' or the careening weird squonk of 'She's My Collar' against the oily synth chords, I was on-board, but even on the more languid tracks if you're looking for a bass groove to anchor the progression, you're going to be left painfully disappointed. And the bizarre thing is that there's no adequate reason for Albarn to go in this direction: people tend to forget how much Gorillaz didn't sound like traditional hip-hop back in the 2000s, calling on rougher boom-bap and live instrumentation, whereas here even in the guitar tones none of it has the depth of tone or crunch to match that live organic feel... even when on a song like 'Strobelite' with its big-beat scratch and retrodisco groove a liquid bass guitar would be an obvious and easy addition! It's a similar issue I had with the sandy hollowness and gurgling blocky beat of 'Saturnz Barz', or the spiky distorted guitar riff of 'Charger' that seems desperate for something to really punch up the tempo, or 'Andromeda'  with its hints of watery fuzz playing off the two-step beat, or the even more sparse outdoor touches on 'Busted And Blue' that seems crying out for some form of organic foundation. At least I can see something to the electronic minimalism of 'Sex Murder Party' or the thin blips of wiry synth holding 'Submission' from barely spiraling of control into the abyss of offkilter noise of synth and guitar, but even there I find myself wishing it carried more actual groove.

And that's pretty much where I fall on this record - for better or worse it is a Gorillaz record, although I'd say it's a lot less likely you can get stoned to this one. There's a little more meat to the writing but it's more abstract symbols than outright narrative, the guest verses are strong and Albarn's delivery continues to work... I just think the production, just like on The Fall, is letting Gorillaz down and not giving them a picture that's nearly as lively or colourful as the virtual band probably deserves. Again, still good, which is why I'm giving this a light 7/10 and a recommendation, especially for fans, but they're not matching their 2000s output in groove or vibes, and I don't see that returning any time soon. Still, it's as good as you could reasonably expect, so check it out.

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