Note – this review will review the music the proper way; Gorillaz are four animated characters who made the following record. Capiche?
Gorillaz have been my favourite band for as long as I’ve been able to get my scrawny little fingers onto a compact disc. They represent a lot of what Cat on the Wall loves and advocates; the removal of pop ego, the natural meeting of very unnatural cronies in genre and style – the organic creation of music with no real rules or expectation. It’s a powder keg of music, connected to several thousand fuses that could lead in any direction. There’s no knowing what Gorillaz will do because there’s no real knowing as to who – or what – Gorillaz are choosing to be for a release.
The creative powerhouse of Jamie Hewlett (unshaven artist, laid back dude and spontaneously hilarious designer) and Damon Albarn (Pop-sceptic, Brit-icon and spontaneously inspired composer), Gorillaz are in truth reigned only by four musicians with the uncanny ability to not exist. Murdoc Niccals: half-centennial Satanist bassist. Stuart “2D” Pot: dimwitted, blue-haired, dead-eyed vocalist and keys. Russel Hobbs: 340 pound, conspiracy theorist, spirit-magnet drummer, and the elusive Noodle: zombie-fighter, guitarist and Japan-created war-machine.
These four characters have every music taste and every walk of life going for them (and despite a cynic’s comment that a cartoon character can’t have taste, every inspiration is well mapped out in their own words) so it’s no surprise that every album brushed over with their ink and paint has completely subverted the last. The concept of working with cartoons must be a compelling one, as their collaborator list is larger than the Philharmonic Orchestra – all of whom have brought their own dulcet – and sometimes even long dormant – skills to the fray of synths, bass and abstract lyrics of the finest virtual quadruped the world has ever known.
My point is, primarily, that you can’t carry convention into what a Gorillaz album will sound like. There will be many complaints that their latest record, Humanz, doesn’t ‘sound like Gorillaz’, and at first glance, it’s an entirely justifiable view. This is most certainly a sharp detour from the likes of their repertoire. In this reviewer’s opinion, however, as you’ll soon find out, it’s the purest in what Gorillaz effectively set out to do. For now… after seven long years, the fourth major studio album from the world’s biggest virtual band…
Starting with the booming voice of Ben Mendelsohn – whom represents each stylistic twist and turn of this ‘record for the end of the world’ immediately begins with… well, the beginning of the end of the world. The interludes on the album are odd things; echoing passages from the Australian actor that add credence and weight to the album’s many tales.
“I switched my robot off. I know more, and retain less…” followed by the big countdown.
Song One – Ascension
Ascension, with Vince Staples, captures that chaos and almost dizzying aesthetic of apocalypse flawlessly – his voice rattling off faster than a nail gun, with 2D providing the more submissive and exhausted, albeit very begrudging, come-down. The sky’s falling baby – drop that ass, before it crash. Sirens, screams, yells and the feeling of pure, ecstatic disaster introduce the album’s point perfectly. It’s not about how to cope; it’s about how other people are coping. Vince is the devil’s advocate as much as he’s our first musical narrator. Racial tension plays a huge part in this little introduction. It’s a sort of mirror to the land of the free itself – Where you can get a glock and a gram for the cheap. It’s not subtle; but let’s be completely honest: Gorillaz aren’t known for their subtlety.
Song Two – Strobelight
This dizzying beginning sets off the entire record beautifully – and jars its own pace immediately with the funky, more romantic eye-level of Peven Everett with Strobelite. Simple synth hooks dancing, entwining through and under eachother as Everett and Gorillaz’ backing vocals throw in a chilled out party groove against the shoulders of Acension’s echoing dominance. It’s preaching peace against what’s already a background of chaos and disarray. It’s a hand clapper, a soulful little bouncer of a track that refuses to let circumstance drag it down. It’s no time for optimism – it’s a time for enjoying yourself regardless of the reality that’s around you. A dissenting voice to …well, Acension’s dissenting voice. There’s nothing gloomy about this track at all to my ears, and it forms a surprisingly early break from the rather dark first chapter of the record.
Song Three – Saturnz Barz
The album’s camera in the sky takes back off, and this time never quite stops – as the entire world seems to stand before our eyes with the melancholic but immensely catchy Saturnz Barz. Popcaan – a rapper who’s quite literally the reggae man of the now, speaking in a thick jamaican tongue that’s difficult to interpret but harder to ignore; Popcaan is – or, as this is the end of the world – was willing to do anything for fame, while 2D has done it all already – he’s the ‘old man at the bar’ – the voice of the mirror. Standing alone on stage, or behind his keyboard – represented only by a hologram. With an insanely catchy hook, catchy chorus and relatable set of conflicting views, it’s no wonder Saturnz Barz became our first single – and now, the camera ducks back down and plummets towards something far more intimate…
Song Four – Momentz
Once again; you’ve no time to breathe – the world ending won’t wait for you. De La Soul is back in the Gorillaz camp for Momentz – the closer for this chapter and the first sign of the en-masse celebration of the world. This feels like a house party to end all house parties – De La and Gorillaz are effectively the perfect partnership, and this is the first obvious club banger on the record. I must admit it isn’t 100% my thing, but as far as a club song goes, it’s an immense little bit of work that feels like it came from a friendly jam – a very drunken jam, but a productive one all the same. If any song so far is fit to fill a dance floor, it’s this one. The drum machine here is about as hefty and pulsing as it can get.
I need to step out for a fresh of breath air after that…
The Non Conformist Oath comes next; “repeat after me – I promise to be different!” Bellows the all-too-obvious parallel to the wave of politics that has sparked off this colossal end of the world party. Strap yourself in..
Song Five – Submission
Submission provides the angelic tones of Kelela – and at first, gives the illusion of a simple, pretty pop song. Then, at 1:47, the tone begins to fold; everything seems to feel ‘not quite right’. A whirlpool opens – a grand shadow above…. and the voice of Danny Brown takes over. The voice of the underprivileged against a privileged party (I buy and sell, crying for help, but I won’t get saved by no Superman! etc); a man who fights for everything against somebody who wants to help but simply doesn’t understand how. By the time it looks like an agreement could be made… it’s gone. For everything that the track has going for it, it feels like it still needs a bit of fleshing out and colouring in. The runtime is too short for its concept, in my mind – and I feel like it’s crying out for something to bring it together.
Song Six – Charger
And now, Charger… here’s Gorillaz doing Goth-rock. Yes. Really. A dingy, dirty and sexually enthralling burst of darkness with a digital dominatrix. Yes. Really. And the result is just… fucking Christ, it’s amazing. Not only did I never expect to hear Gorillaz with the legendary Grace Jones, but I never expected to hear my favourite group mash so beautifully with my favourite subculture. The – ahem – charging hooks and increasingly thrilling, throbbing, pulsating ambience make for a truly biting look into the increasing power of technology. 2D’s bewildered, rambling vocals perfectly embody a man trying to make sense of the bending to the will of the virtual voyeur – while Noodle’s raging guitar ensures our axe princess still gets time to flex. This is a beautiful mix of Gorillaz’ darker side – and feels like one of the most character driven on the record. Russel’s club beats, Noodle’s guitar, 2D’s innocence and Murdoc’s filthy, inky blackness. And general sexual endeavours…
Give me a moment, chaps – I want to listen to this one a few more times…
Okay, I’m back. Where were we?
Our narrator, by now obviously having the time of his life, has pressed the big red button, and from the filthiest underbelly wishes to take us up to the Penthouse suite. Elevator Going Up…
Song Seven – Andromeda
And straight into the immensely personal and poppy Andromeda. Bass heavy, positively cosmic and yet full of mourning – as 2D remembers those he’s lost, including his favourite clubs, collaborators and more. This is his song, and the emotional connection with Damon Albarn is all too obvious. Both are felt in their swathes here; it’s a very tangible, spiritual and romantic look into the concept of loss and the great beyond. Despite the slightly melancholic concept, it feels more optimistic than it does depressed, partially due to the influence of the infectiously joyful DRAM. It feels like a great, echoing stare of awe into the elevated. A look at legacy itself. It’s a beautiful little pop track – quite a stunning piece of work, and as the first track of Humanz we got to hear on Radio, rather important to showing what the album really is. The reality of the situation is what inspires the coping mechanism.
Song Eight – Busted and Blue
And now, you get the melancholy. Busted and Blue; The voice of the battered and beaten, floating through the untamed, inky blackness of space itself – lost, aimless, yet oddly omnipresent. It feels almost like it’s been entirely improvised – stunningly so. Like the listener’s hand has been taken and we’re being stared at. The instrumental of this has been offered as meditation music on the Gorillaz app – and I feel like that’s enormously fitting for how this particular song goes about its business. It demands your concentration – then drifts you off with only the deep, neglectful and emotionally discharged ruin singing its plight.
Ben’s back now with Talk Radio. I’ll only go as far as you want me to… Sounds a bit like a dirty phone call to me.
Song Nine – Carnival
And now Carnival, with Anthony Hamilton. The carving of entertainment being used as a distraction, a way to shepherd and tunnel people into the grand abattoir. It feels enormous; perhaps the only track after Acension to feel truly post-apocalyptic, like the fallout of an Earth shattering event, as Anthony deals with the waltzing confusion of…everything. The sensory overload of trying to make sense of everything around him – everything thrown at him from every angle to get the brass pound and idle support from his pockets and mind. This particular song is far too short. I’d have loved to get an extra minute from one of the most interesting landscapes on the record – but like a shot in the arm, it disappears with only its effects left ringing. Bloody marvellous.
Song Ten – Let Me Out
Let Me Out rolls in next; one of the most obviously political on Humanz’ plastic. Pusha T‘s lack of faith and terror at the sudden spikes of hatred against the minorities of his community (including himself) inspire so much desperation that he grabs the voice of maturity in the stunning, gospel vocal of Mavis Staples. regretfully, Staples has no firm optimism at hand. She tells him to get ready for the world’s changes, be they negative or positive – and that people may well have to fall if they want to survive the world’s growing uncertainty. 2D recognises this is nothing new; just repackaged. But the fighting will never lose its value. The track is so dominated by these three viewpoints that the instrumental behind is almost too easy to disregard. A shame really, as it’s superb at raising its own tension for the narrative.
Now, in the elevator, we’ve just about reached the Penthouse – which is already chiming with debauchery. Something… is gonna happen tonight… And, rather fittingly, the next two tracks take on the filthier side of the apocalypse.
Song Eleven – Sex Murder Party
That something is an… um. Sex Murder Party. (Who ever expected a Gorillaz track with that kind of title?) A cautionary tale of the debauchery apocalypse can lead to (or result from). This one is a particularly fine and dark, gloomy offering – it feels like prime Demon Days material; perhaps even a remixed, cancelled track from the group’s golden record. The only people who suffer are those young enough to get caught in it all. It’s only truly Gorillaz prime the lyrics are given proper attention, but with Zebra Katz and Jamie Principle sitting in, the track’s sheer style is enough to take to the bank. This is a heavy highlight for me – it’s still playing back relentlessly in my head.
Song Twelve – She’s My Collar
She’s My Collar is damned sexy. Everything about it is instantly evocative – that regular, thrusting, digital beat and Kali Uchis‘s beautiful, seductive vocal make for a very simple but instantly addictive and indulgent pleasure. 2D’s vocals take on a whole new level of confidence and flirtation, and the track effectively forms one of the most ‘pop’ friendly of Gorillaz’ entire repertoire. An unexpected, tangy little treat that’s increasingly difficult to deny yourself. One imagines, much like the concept of free love when you’re in your last hours.
And out of The Elephant‘s trunk…confetti….
This album really is a bit crackers, isn’t it? Of course, the elephant is the symbol of the Republican party. What are they celebrating?
Song Thirteen – Hallelujah Money
I could cheat here and use Cat on the Wall’s previous review of Hallelujah Money. It’s a track I loved then and still love now. Controversially released on the eve of the Trump inauguration, there were concerns that this track and its video represented the future of Gorillaz; simple, digital beats, dominating collaborators, thick lashings of political observation… Ahem. The simple fact is, there’s nothing wrong with Hallelujah Money – but even we’re guilty of proclaiming it wouldn’t be on the main record. It’s a track more fitting of a spoken-word art installation than a dance album. Benjamin Clementine‘s voice is stunning, deep and powerful, and his role as the tattered world’s greed preacher, while not particularly subtle, is instantly electrifying.
For the penultimate song of the standard edition record, it’s a particularly fine juxtaposition for…
Song Fourteen – We Got The Power
We Got The Power. Yeah! I adore this song. It’s really, really cheesy new wave, straight from the 80s, and I find it absolutely charming in its sincerity. Taking on the supremely talented Jehnny Beth and Noel Gallagher (Damon Albarn’s ex-enemy apparently having realised Gorillaz weren’t just a kid’s gimmick), the result is a seriously enriching bit of self-aware, self-indulgent cheese that basically rips up the album’s cautionary, often twisted tales and tells it as it is; anybody can love one another if they just give it a fucking go. A chanting, fist pumping anthem, it truly feels like it just wants to make everybody smile. Like its predecessor, it has no interest in subtlety. Catchy drums, bouncing, rapid synths and a crowd of voices provide that simple note of optimism for the future. It’s so self-indulgent and embracing that it can’t help but feel…well, like a fucking adorable effort from a group of unlikely friends. I love it. Saying that, I’d love to hear that rockier version Gorillaz are said to have locked away…
The Deluxe Extras
That’s the standard edition dealt with. But you know, I didn’t actually buy the standard edition… we’ve got six more to go thanks to the offerings of the 2CD Deluxe version of Humanz. It’s a lovely example of what I’d want from a deluxe – six more tracks (alright, five if you ignore the interlude) isn’t something to be sniffed at. But how do they hold up?
Ben is still in his elevator – but this time, we’re going to the New World (against a particularly MoS-esque lift). I just wanted to be close to you….
Song Fifteen – The Apprentice
The Apprentice is done a miscarriage of justice by being a bonus track. This is really goddamned special, and it’s almost entirely due to the hook and Rag ‘n’ Bone Man‘s incredible, commandeering vocals as the conscience of the unscrupulous. It’s not only an earworm, it’s a new level of suave, effortlessly cool production for the group – and when Zebra Katz and RAY BLK join into the line up, it’s teeming with so much talent in its running time that I find this utterly irresistible. This track deserves play everywhere; if it wasn’t a bonus track I’d be campaigning for it as a single, complete with full-tier music video. The chorus is one of the highlights of the entire deluxe album’s tracklist. Absolutely superb.
Song Sixteen – Halfway to the Halfway House
Halfway to the Halfway House feels a bit like something from a jazz club… On a space station. It’s a tiny bit bare bones, but what it has is wonderful – the simple, plunky synths feel a bit inadequate against Peven Everett’s vocal, and it’s not quite where it could be – but it doesn’t stop the song from being effortlessly smooth and soulful. I also now really, really want a glass of cherryade.
Song Seventeen – Out Of Body
Out of Body left me feeling a bit bewildered. What is this? Kilo Kish, Zebra Katz and Imani Vonshà present one of those dance instruction tracks that are really popular in clubs for some reason, and nothing much else happens. 2D pops onto the track briefly, but still doesn’t particularly give us a context. Um. Very odd. A particularly weak link for me.
Song Eighteen – Ticker Tape
Ticker Tape – that’s more like it! Very much like a jam session. Simple, but polished and ear-catching, with a wonderful, mellow tone throughout. It feels relaxed and warm – too mellow to be on the main record, perhaps – but just too damned good not to be released. A track for a cold morning with a good cup of coffee, with a loved one. Or alone – it matters not. I get the impression this is effectively living among the chaos as a reminder that, eventually, a new leader – and with them, a new world – will come, and a visionary will rebuild what’s been lost. We’re walking through it, walking through the nightmare. Carly Simon and Kali Uchis provide perfect companions for 2D as he strolls with a new sense of elation – that for now, the chaos itself appears to be over. For a brief moment, you’ve got your freedom, and a sense of optimism for the future. Of course… there’s a chance you’re only looking for the silver lining, and ignoring the cloud.
Song Nineteen – Circle of Friendz
Circle of Friendz feels like a particularly natural closure to the expanded Humanz narrative – the sound of sirens, crumbling infrastructure and the end of civilisation is met with reassurance, as the absolutely stunning vocals of Brandon Markell Holmes exhumes and explains the power of those close to us – the only people who you can really rely on. This track is simplicity itself; but while the bare bones and lack of context failed two of the tracks preceding, here it feels essential for that final close; those final two minutes before the credits roll forever. The result is beautiful.
And so ends the deluxe edition of Humanz. It’s a fascinating journey. Pop friendly? No, I don’t think so. For what many are proclaiming to be the most pop-radio ready of Gorillaz’ catalogue, it’s just too off-kilter and unhinged for its own good. The band aren’t capable of properly grabbing pop by its balls intentionally – even their biggest hits aren’t quite standard radio fare. Saying that, much in the case of Feel Good Inc, Clint Eastwood et al, there’s always a chance. The band works by subverting as readily as they embrace the world of the charts. It’s a flirtatious relationship of love and hate, and that friction is effectively what’s driven the band’s surprising performance since day one.
Murdoc, 2D, Russel and Noodle have no interest in making an optimistic party record. This one is dark in all of the ways that Plastic Beach never quite managed to be, and has a ton of complexity for a record already garnering reputation as being largely built on an iPad. The tools aren’t important, it’s the artist handling them, and I’m comfortable that no other musician could have quite pulled this one off so well. It feels a touch like all of the back catalogue writhed into one digital soundbite of often bizarre but incredibly moreish songwriting.
I’m comfortable that no other musician could have quite pulled this one off so well…
It’s the purest form of Gorillaz record as it feels like the characters could have built it throughout. It has that perfect balance of cynicism, freedom, activism and all-embracing quality that makes the four personalities so essential to the group’s sound – even if they don’t exist, they’re all over this album, and can be felt far more than the two real-life personalities we have stapled to them. It has that perfect organised chaos of their dynamic.
I do miss the more acoustic driven staples of albums past. I’m not, by and large, a club or synth fan, and it took more than a couple of listens to really start looking this one eye to eye. It’s true that this doesn’t sound like any of the group’s back catalogue so far, more like a fusion of all of them; but I challenge anybody to find a linked sound between any of the group’s output, which is far more diverse than most artists would dare to place a step. I do think it’s fair to say that without Mendelsohn’s narration, this album would be incredibly disconnected and even lacking consistency or tone. The cynical side of me says that interludes were only brought in to try and link things back together…
It’s a great album. Not perfect, but for its imperfections I feel it’s only easier and more accessible a listen. There’s no high concepts, no pretention and not even a particularly higher ground. In a sense, it truly does feel like a completely spontaneous journey through hip hop, electronica, club and rock and roll – without every feeling completely overshadowed by one or the other. The end of the world apocalyptic theme proves a surprisingly diverse subject matter, and with the blending of real life politics we could even see this record become essential listening. Even gospel.
As to which version to get, the deluxe edition is an easy win – the wonderful additions of The Apprentice, Ticker Tape and Circle of Friendz seal the deal every time. It’s fairly obvious to see why these are bonus tracks (except for the Apprentice, which I figure just didn’t fit on the main album’s disc), but it provides a lovely companion to a story that reaches a conclusion with optimism, hope and love.
The album takes great pleasure into delving towards what Gorillaz have never done before. Plentiful levels of soul, funk and hip hop – stunning dives into darker, more pulsating doomy scenes, and new wave elements are all things we’ve rarely – if ever – seen the group look towards, and it’s been a considerable pleasure to see these things experimented with, even if some experiments didn’t quite work.
Is Humanz worth a buy? Absolutely. Is it perfect? No. Is it essential Gorillaz? 100% yes. A fusion of everything the band has at their disposal, and a comfortable midway between Plastic Beach and Demon Days – dark and doomy, complex and thorough – but not without those moments of pure peace, bliss and escapism. Well worth a look in – it’s a whole new world for the ink and paint club of modern music.