As a band, artistic project, or audio-visual platform, Gorillaz are incredibly difficult to pigeonhole. Ostensibly the most visible creative outlet of artist Jamie Hewlett, with singer, songwriter, and erstwhile Blur frontman Damon Albarn, Gorillaz’s music has always been dependent on, and highly informed by, the many collaborators who’ve defined so many of their most notable songs – from debut single “Clint Eastwood” featuring Del The Funky Homosapien (2001) to seismic blockbuster single “Feel Good Inc.” from seminal 2005 album Demon Days, featuring De La Soul.
The tracklisting for Gorillaz’s fifth full-length LP Humanz continues the tradition, reading like an alt-pop Hollywood Walk of Fame. Throughout, Albarn and Hewlett remain in background roles, working through the band’s fictional, CGI performers while a plethora of guest vocalists each take a beat and make it their own. Their contributions range from the bombast of Detroit rap superstar Danny Brown’s guest verse alongside Kelela in “Submission”, to the subtle layering of D.R.A.M.’s backing vocals in “Andromeda”. Pre-existing Gorillaz fans will be familiar with the concept of so many guest contributions, and the different sounds brought by each to a single album, but the thin line between too-many-guests and too-much-Gorillaz has never seemed quite so perilous.
The guest contributions on Humanz range in length as well as presence – Grace Jones jostles for room in “Charger” alongside Albarn’s grating, overtly-Cockney riffs, while Benjamin Clementine is given free reign over “Hallelujah Money” to warble endlessly about the perils of currency – “it’s not against our morals, it’s legal tender”. Whether you appreciate each and every guest spot on Humanz depends on your preference for any of the artists featured, or your openness to hearing hard-edged hip-hop (“Ascension” featuring Vince Staples) and creeping dub-reggae (“Saturnz Barz” featuring Popcaan) so close together on the same CD. At times, the staggering diversity of Humanz leads it to sound more like a playlist than a fully-realised album.
The pre-released singles from Humanz went even further towards dividing opinion, as it became difficult to believe that all four – “Ascension”, “Saturnz Barz”, “Andromeda”, and “We Got The Power” – could be from the same release. The latter of the four, featuring lead vocals from Savages frontwoman Jehnny Beth and a distant backing vocal from Albarn’s former Britpop nemesis Noel Gallagher, not only split opinion due to its saccharine tone, but for being a busy melting pot of ideas and noises which almost became an allegory for the album as a whole. Whenever a single song stands out on Humanz, it never seems like Gorillaz’s fault – the fun usually stems from the straightforward, monopolistic presence of a well-used featured artist, such as Peven Everett on the ever-dancy “Strobelite” or Kelela’s hooks with Danny Brown’s verse on “Submission”.
“Pre-existing Gorillaz fans will be familiar with the concept of so many guest contributions, and the different sounds brought by each to a single album, but the thin line between too-many-guests and too-much-Gorillaz has never seemed quite so perilous“
If the album has a central, unifying theme, it’s likely to come from Albarn’s politicised lyrics, as world events come under critical fire – “Attack on Iraq / It’s on a line / Typing it fast / Then it’s slipping my mind” from “Ascension” hammers this home – and a recurring theme of acceptance and idealistic optimism keeps coming back as well. “I promise to be different! I promise to be unique! I promise not to repeat things other people say!” from “Interlude: The Non-Conformist Oath” is perhaps the least veiled example of this, although the built-in irony of a choir repeating the words of a speaker telling them not to conform will surely put some in mind of 1979’s Life of Brian. As conceptual influences go, you can do worse than Monty Python.
While lyrical themes go some way towards delivering Gorillaz’s message, amidst the album’s 70-minute, 26-song run (that’s the Deluxe version found on Spotify) it’s hard to find a song which only features Gorillaz “themselves” with no outside assistance. Albarn, in character as Gorillaz’s fictional frontman 2D, sings occasionally, almost exclusively through a breathy low pass filter, while the rest of the instrumentation on Humanz consists of buzzy synth pads found on cuts like “Andromeda”, “Busted and Blue” etc., and more energetic, pulsating disco beats. Still somewhat lacking are the infectious grooves from songs like “Dirty Harry” (2005) and the memorable basslines of songs like “Stylo” (2010); the actual sound of Humanz is rarely objectionable, but more often simply agreeable.
In the end, your ability (or inability) to enjoy this album depends on if you see it as a cluttered, unfocused clusterf*ck of ideas and synth pads, or a smorgasbord of contemporary talent – whether it comes across as a vital, insightful commentary on the frenetic and disorienting pace of life in 2017, or a big, meandering mess which shoulders its appeal onto the prowess of any given solo artist. As with Gorillaz’s previous work, the visual marketing campaign for Humanz has been staggering, with 3D videos, augmented reality apps, and even a full-scale festival planned for this summer. Personally, I can’t help but think a little bit of that energy could’ve gone towards making an album with a bit more cohesion. If Humanz is an evolution, maybe it’s time to go back.
Josh Will Eden