What happens when a cartoon rock group turns into the real thing? Twelve years ago, when Blur's Damon Albarn started Gorillaz, it just seemed like a typical English rock star's idea of a groovy side project — teaming with London comic-book artist Jamie Hewlett to create a fictional multi-media band. A lot of fans figured Albarn was burned out, both as a celebrity and a Brit-pop concept-flogger. But as a musician, he was just getting started. Three albums in, his cartoon act has ruled as a pop powerhouse longer than Blur did — especially in the U.S., where the first two Gorillaz albums have outsold the entire Blur catalog. It's almost like if James Hetfield quit Metallica to join Dethklok.
The four Gorillaz are post-human cartoon characters (2D, Noodle, Russel and Murdoc), fronting for a rotating cast of musicians and animators — a statement about pop's cult of personality. But it's also a clever way for Albarn to ditch his Nineties fame-whore persona. Hiding behind the animation, he can focus on his main love, which turns out to be (surprisingly) music. Gorillaz have always worked a specific sound: mellow rapping, high-pitched crooning, disco synths over loping reggae bass lines. In America, nobody really cares about Albarn's ideas or the cartoon mythology. But everybody loves "Feel Good Inc."
Plastic Beach, Gorillaz's third excellent album in a row, is all Albarn — he writes the tunes, produces, sings, plays most of the music and gets people on the phone for left-field cameos: Snoop Dogg, De La Soul, Lou Reed, the Clash's Mick Jones and more. "Stylo" is a typical highlight, with Albarn passing the mike to indie rapper Mos Def and old-school soul belter Bobby Womack.
Plastic Beach is not as pop as the first two Gorillaz albums — there aren't any go-for-the-throat dance tunes in the style of "Dare," "Feel Good Inc." or "19-2000." But it peaks high. Snoop Dogg announces, "Welcome to the world of the plastic beach!" in the title theme. Snoop has never sounded more laaaid back, rhyming "in focus" with "the world is so hopeless." Albarn sings orchestral ballads like "Rhinestone Eyes" and "Broken," while "White Flag" features low-key Brit rappers Kano and Bashy nattering about ecology over strings from the Syrian National Orchestra for Arabic Music.
Last time, Gorillaz scored an unlikely classic with "Dare," featuring a guest rasp by the Happy Mondays' Shaun Ryder, the beloved old acid-house git from Manchester, whose demented wheeze added a bit of local color. If anyone gets the Ryder MVP trophy on Beach, it's Lou Reed, who's hilariously cranky (even by his own standards) in "Some Kind of Nature." The setting might be an island in the South Pacific, but Reed's deadpan is pure New York sleaze, as he sneers, "Me, I love plastics and digital foils."
Beach has a loose environmental theme, inspired by Albarn's visit to a Mali landfill. The tropical island where the Gorillaz hang out is a "plastic beach" of industrial-waste products, so they recycle all the debris into shiny new toys. And that's the musical plan as well, mixing up bric-a-brac from around the world. Albarn hasn't totally given up his day job — Blur are back in the headlines after recent reunion shows. But Plastic Beach proves that he's most truly himself when he turns into a cartoon.
(Posted: Mar 1, 2010)