Thursday, July 5, 2018

album review: 'the now now' by gorillaz

I can't be the only one a little floored that we have a new Gorillaz record already, can I? I mean, I thought Humanz was a good if uneven return last year, but it was the sort of project that didn't really herald an era of increased productivity for Damon Albarn's cartoon band... but apparently Albarn enjoyed the process of touring and felt that spark of inspiration return so frequently that before long he had another record ready to go. 

And I'll freely admit some of the buzz was... well, let's be honest and say kind of questionable, as Albarn was looking to frame this record as a lightweight point of reconciliation, something to bring people together across untenable divides before the apocalyptic framing of the last album really snapped into place. And sure, that could be an admirable intention, but as much as I liked the groove behind 'Humility', I wasn't sure Gorillaz would be able to mine the same emotional pathos and punch out of those tones - there's always been an understated murky edge to the group at their best that I hoped wasn't going to be left behind, and that's not even getting into the socio-political subtext that could very well continue from Humanz and that sort of comprised middle-ground might not be the best place for Gorillaz to land. But alright, what did we get from The Now Now?

Honestly, very little. And I hate to feel like i'm just joining the critical consensus here, but it's hard to deny that in comparison to the greater effort and intensity behind Humanz, The Now Now is a lightweight, borderline indistinct comedown record full of ephemeral sounds that might fit the tone of summer malaise but does little else. Forget comparisons to Gorillaz's glory days, this is the sort of throwaway project that I don't think I could even put in the same category, not even precisely bad so much as it is utterly forgettable, which for its misshapen blend of psychedelia, hip-hop, electronica, and dream pop is a bit of an issue!

And here's the thing: I get that this is a vibe record, one intended to just drift into a listless haze in the background when the dance party becomes sour or the afternoon sun sparks a headache - there are only a few token guest appearances from George Benson, Jamie Principle, and Snoop Dogg phoning in yet another verse, and the rest is Damon Albarn's dejected, muffled crooning that can't help but colour any pop groove with melancholy. And yes, I get that it's intentional, and since Damon Albarn is one of the original earnest sadboy singer-songwriters he tends to get a pass on the fact that Gorillaz have better than average grooves and occasionally a decent hook. But say what you will about how scattered Humanz could feel, there was at least a sense of urgency to give it momentum and character, something that The Now Now increasingly doesn't have in the waves of glittery synth funk, atonal shifts, and warping hints of drippy, psychedelic guitars that can't help but feel more like fragments than anything completely distinct. Yeah, the sunnier touches around George Benson's guitar work on 'Humility' sounds good, and the sharper, darker synth funk groove of 'Tranz' managed to keep the momentum, but from there the mix began to dissolve into permutations of funk that were all burbling tone but no greater texture or tension. The stiff and stuttering percussion of 'Kansas' and 'Sorcererz', the flat, atonal warping of 'Idaho' which against the watery touches doesn't really capture any permutation of that rocky state I've ever experienced, or even the increasingly brittle 'One Percent' that literally sounds like it's falling apart after the unstable paranoia and melancholy of 'Fire Flies', all ending on the drippy acoustics of 'Souk Eye' as Albarn turns back towards earth. And look, beyond 'Kansas' I would struggle to say any of these tones are precisely bad - 'Kansas' just has the bad luck of having no momentum with sloppily mixed cleaner vocals and an ugly stiffness in the percussion - but by the second half of this record I'd struggle to say that this is even good music to get stoned to - with no organic texture, the most that I can really appreciate are the grooves, and even they lose focus.

Now all of this could be excusable if the lyrical content worked, and remember how I started the review concerned about how this album could be trying to heal a wider divide? Well, that subtext is there, but this record is aiming for higher concepts - this isn't Frank Turner's Be More Kind or even directly referencing the dystopian storytelling of Humanz. And yet on the one hand, there are intriguing ideas here: 'Hollywood' might be your standard deconstruction of the flashy hedonism, but Albarn is narrowing in on the paranoia and scattered highs he can experience through it, two sides of a tangled haze that he keeps trying to connect, especially as one side supports but then undercuts the other. And that is a tangible divide you can tell he's trying to find some way to span, be it the reckless journey home of 'Kansas' or the tunnel spanning half the world on the glorified interlude 'Lake Zurich'. And yet when he tries to transcend all of it by staring skyward in a blur of skyward soaring - and I'll give 'One Percent' some points for actively capturing the aesthetic of orbiting loneliness beyond our world - it's that tangled magic of L.A. that brings him falling back, to span its contradictions once again. And if all of this sounds abstract and detached... well, that's not uncommon with Gorillaz, given their ongoing narrative, but The Now Now feels... not so much detached or fragmented but oblique, in its own internal headspace that has some earnest charm even if it doesn't bother to make a lot of sense or have much connective tissue. 

But again, with a vibe record you could make the argument that's all you need... but on the other hand if you're looking for a record that has any sort of grounding texture to engage with the audience, The Now Now doesn't even really try. It kind of exists in its own space, and while I can see the appeal in the short term, it feels formless and undercooked, with no deeper sense of tension or grounded melancholy and even darkening its mellow tones. And if all of that is your thing, go have fun, but you can't tell me this rises to the level of any of Gorillaz's work in the 2000s and I'd argue even Humanz hits better high points. So for me, this is a 5/10 and I can't really recommend it to anyone beyond the diehard fans. If you're curious, give it a try, but don't say I didn't warn you that this trip might leave you kind of underwhelmed on the other side.

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