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Top 25 Art Blog - Creative Tourist

Gorillaz – Plastic Beach – Album Review

Damon Albarn's cartoon friends return, marking the strongest collection of songs by the bizarre and eccentric pop act known as Gorillaz

Written by Rachel Clare

gorillaz plastic beach album review damon albarn paul simonon mos def snoop dogg mark e smith cartoons

Yes yes, approved we get it. We all know that Gorillaz is an ‘imaginary’ band made up of four Jamie Hewlett-created cartoon characters who ‘play’ the instruments and ‘give’ interviews (read: the label offers out pre written interview answers for journalists to do with them what they will, help or occasionally, there in some hideous PR-created postmodern nightmare scenario, well-known character actors pretend to be the band members and give phone interviews. Seriously). Oh, and they all live together on a big floating island made up of the planet’s rubbish. Very clever, boys, but can we drop it now please?  Three albums in, this schtick is getting rather tiresome – the joke has been dragged out waaay too long. What are you hiding from, Damon Albarn?  Come forward, don’t be shy and stop playing silly buggers with your hairy mate with the felt tips, because ‘Plastic Beach’ is yet another work of brilliance from the prolifically creative brain of Colchester’s prodigal son.

What is instantly clear, in comparison to previous Gorillaz output, is the lack of any chart-smashing singles a la “Clint Eastwood” or “DARE” on this, their third album.  Contrary to Albarn’s recent claims, this is probably the least commercial output the ‘band’ has produced, yet in my opinion this works in the album’s favour. Instead of pop hooks and catchy beats, we get Indian bhangra, classical strings, grimey electro hip-hop, marching bands and Bobby Womack. BOBBY WOMACK, people! Awesome. It is a far from faultless, but this lack of commerciality makes it a more interesting, challenging and an ultimately more intelligent album.

Albarn seems to have been very busy making friends and influencing people of late. With a role call of collaborators so impressively credible you can only imagine the howls of jealousy emanating from Mark ‘bloody’ Ronson’s house, we have the improbable joy of hearing the likes of Snoop Dogg, Lou Reed, Mos Def and half of The Clash on the same album.

“White Flag”, featuring the unlikely collaboration of BashyKano, and the Lebanese National Orchestra for Oriental and Arabic Music, opens with sub-continental bhangra beats and classical strings which then transform into a backing track from Super Mario Land with Kano and Bashy MC’ing away over the top.  Next comes a flute solo (of course!), some more Indian strings and then it’s over.  It’s weird but it works.

After the two distinctly average singles, “Stylo” (feat. Mos Def and Bobby Womack), and “Super Fast Jelly Fish”, comes the good stuff.  ‘Empire Ants’ opens as a spacious and trippy ballad with Albarn’s familiarly languid vocals floating sleepily over a charmingly basic Casio beat track, but which then transforms into a huge dazzling disco epic with the help of Swedish electro darlings Little Dragon.

Next up is the snarling glamrock electronic stomp of “Glitter Freeze” and it is effing brilliant.  Predominantly instrumental with the odd spoken word and demonic laugh emanating from the eternally downturned mouth of Mark E Smith, this is where you realise just how damn good Albarn is. He is adept at creating these huge musical soundscapes which build and build to almost orgasmic levels with seemingly effortless abandon. Kasabian, take note.

Delightful ditty and title track “Plastic Beach” is proof again that Albarn produces some of his best work when paired up with ex-Clash bassist and habitual Albarn collaborator, Paul Simonon – on this occasion being joined by old chum, fellow Clash guitarist Mick Jones. This track is an irresistibly bouncy pop record with enough quirk and edge to keep you tapping your feet and bobbing your head without getting irritated by its obviousness or its saccharine aftertaste.

Womack’s second appearance comes on “Cloud of Unknowing”, a simply extraordinary and stunning piece of vocal-led classical music.  With the help of Sinfonia ViVA, Womack’s vocal is epic, touching and goose-bumps good. We mustn’t forget that Albarn is a bone fide opera composer and is as adept at classical composition as he is at pop, hip hop, disco, rock and pretty much any other genre you can think of.

Not all tracks hit the mark, however. Snoop’s track, “Welcome to the World of the Plastic Beach”, is disappointingly average, and second single “Super Fast Jelly Fish”, featuring Gruff Rhys and De La Soul, is thin, soulless and intrinsically irritating.  However, on listening to ‘Plastic Beach’, you are left with a resounding sense of satisfaction and joy that you have just witnessed Bobby Womack singing with a full orchestra; The Clash featuring on a track about Casio keyboards and stylophones; Mos Def singing over a marching band; Lou Reed’s vocals spread comfortably over an unapologetically jaunty pop record.

Albarn constantly nudges the boundaries of genre and somehow persuades legendary artists to step out of their comfort zones for just a moment in order to create something unexpected and wonderful. Due to this, I am prepared to forgive the tedious cartoon smoke screen for now, but I think next time do away with the false modesty and claim the glory for your creation, Mr Albarn, since you truly deserve it.

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