Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett’s Gorillaz project has bought tens of thousands and thousands of albums, spawned No 1 singles, damaged America in a manner no Britpop band (together with Blur) ever managed, gained awards, headlined festivals, spawned its personal competition – Demon Dayz – and staged huge transcontinental enviornment excursions. All this with out it ever changing into clear what Gorillaz is meant to be. An alt-rock star’s prolonged sneery joke on the expense of manufactured pop? A catch-all repository for a musical polymath’s teeming multiplicity of concepts? An act of self-indulgence or a courageous, boundary-pushing experiment that generally works to startling impact and generally very publicly fails?
At varied factors since their 2000 debut, Gorillaz have encompassed all of these issues: they’ve lurched from feeling like a stoned folly to a brilliantly creative reimagining of what a pop band might be; from a postmodern gag to the supply of evidently heartfelt idea albums about environmentalism and the apocalyptic tone of life within the twenty first century; from being the item of Noel Gallagher’s derision to that includes Noel Gallagher as a particular visitor.
You get the sensation Damon Albarn isn’t totally certain himself the right way to outline Gorillaz, which makes Track Machine Season One: Unusual Timez an oddly good option to rejoice the band’s twentieth anniversary. It’s an album born out of a web based challenge that Albarn claimed he launched into with “completely no thought the place [it] was going”: a month-to-month sequence of latest songs, apparently written on the hoof, every that includes a brand new visitor artist or artists and an accompanying video. Furthermore, it was a challenge overtaken by world occasions. Briefly order, Track Machine’s movies went from footage of Albarn in the studio with Slowthai and the members of Slaves, or traversing Lake Como in a speedboat with Fatoumata Diawara, to materials that had evidently needed to be patched collectively long-distance, that includes collaborations performed by e-mail. One episode didn’t characteristic a movie in any respect: only a nonetheless of Afrobeat drummer and long-term Albarn collaborator Tony Allen, who had died aged 79 earlier than the observe he had labored on with Skepta in March, How Far?, might be launched.
A few of the music on Track Machine was evidently made in response to 2020 itself: “surgical glove world, bleach-thirsty world”, Albarn sings on Unusual Timez, which options Robert Smith wanting sorrowfully down on the Earth, amazed it’s nonetheless spinning, whereas a piano scampers randomly round, a delicate nod to the Cure’s The Caterpillar amid the four-to-the-floor home beats. A few of it feels weirdly potentiated by what occurred after it was recorded. The Pink Phantom patently isn’t a music about coronavirus or lockdown, however coronavirus and lockdown solid it in an odd gentle: the careworn voice of Elton John, 73, singing about feeling remoted and dealing with dying – “I’ll be ready for you on the opposite aspect”, as “the world falls silent” – set in opposition to rapper 6lack, his voice gleaming with Auto-Tuned modernity, questioning: “Had been you ever actually there?”
Topical or not, Track Machine Season One presents a potent résumé of what the Gorillaz challenge can do at its finest. Its ad-hoc origins imply there isn’t any noticeable overarching idea, however in addition they appear to have introduced the music into focus, militating in opposition to the type of over-expansive indulgence that marred 2017’s Humanz, or certainly the experimental noodling discovered on 2010’s The Fall. The songwriting is sharp, and the melodies uniformly nice. Floating above an intriguing mixture of jangling guitar and scattered beats, the tune of Friday thirteenth, that includes Octavian, sounds alternately joyous and melancholy; the scrabbly punk and stand-up drumming of the Slaves/Slowthai observe Momentary Bliss falls into an unexpectedly fairly refrain.
It’s not simply that the visitors show Albarn’s glorious style in music, though they do – from St Vincent to Octavian to Georgia to Unknown Mortal Orchestra, at the very least within the deluxe version tracks – it’s what he choses to do with their voices. Typically, it’s easy. Peter Hook’s model of bass enjoying is so distinctive that it mechanically makes something he performs on sound like his former band. However, there’s a definite aura of loving homage to New Order concerning the sporadic guitar clang and stuttering drum machine of Aires. Typically it’s at odds with the music the visitor artist is thought for: on Simplicity, Joan As Police Woman’s voice is thrown into an icy, chaotic, harsh digital panorama.
Crucially, the visitor appearances by no means really feel just like the musical equal of these sitcom cameos the place the viewers instantly applauds as a result of they recognise the star: you get the sensation the varied artists are there for what they’ll deliver to the music, slightly than who they’re, which implies they meld right into a fluent entire. For an album made in suits and begins – and with out the discernible overarching themes discovered on Plastic Beach or Humanz – Track Machine is remarkably coherent. That’s tribute to each the range of the artist at its centre, and the all-encompassing, amorphous nature of Gorillaz: why would that you must outline what the challenge is, when the musical result’s this pleasant?
• Track Machine Season One: Unusual Timez by Gorillaz is launched on 23 October, with quite a few tracks out now.
What Alexis listened to this week
Julia Holter – So Humble the Afternoon
The proper antidote to all the pieces: a one-off single that seems like immersing your head in a bucket of sunlit ambient loveliness.