It’s hard to believe that it’s been nearly a decade since the world’s most successful virtual band, Gorillaz, entered public consciousness. The crew’s eponymous debut was an unexpected gem, with some seriously heavy Rap-Rock grooves – aided by producer Dan “The Automator” Nakamura, and a number of outstanding guest spots (most notably Del tha Funkee Homosapien’s). Some brushed aside the 2001 effort as a “cute side project” by former Blur front man Damon Albarn and illustrator Jamie Hewlett. But, in truth, the duo had greater aspirations for Gorillaz than just a one-off job. 2005’s outstanding Demon Days was an incredible follow-up that followed no format: it was a conclave of Pop, Rock, Electronica, and Hip Hop, with producer Dangermouse behind the boards – and another all-star cast which included De La Soul, Boots Riley, and even Dennis Hopper.
Five years later, the Gorillaz machine continues to roll with the group’s third full-fledged release, Plastic Beach. Fans of the group will be particularly excited to hear that Albarn, who has had a hand in musically shaping all of Gorillaz releases, has decided to not enlist the use of an outside producer. As such, any fan ought to know that when it comes to a Gorillaz release, expectations ought to be left at the door – because they’re in for something completely different.
In 2007, Albarn and Hewlett’s collaborated on a Operatic stage adaptation of a 16th Century Chinese novel, Journey to the West. So it’s not surprising in the least that Plastic Beach has its share of orchestral sounds, as displayed on the appropriately-titled “Orchestral Intro.” Clocking in at just over a minute, the track’s cinematic feel, courtesy of rich strings and horns (the latter perhaps signifying a ship leaving port?) lays the groundwork for “Welcome to the World of the Plastic Beach,” which pairs Snoop Dogg and the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble – continuing the band’s penchant for pairing unlikely artists.
When Snoop utters the album’s first words – “Gorillaz and the Boss Dogg / Planet of the Apes,” it becomes an immediate concern that D-oh-double-G will overshadow the cut with his larger-than-life persona. But it’s the contrary, as Snoop’s contribution could be likened more to a backing instrument rather than a lyricist. His rich voice serves to punctuate the song’s instrumentals, which allows it to exist on its own, rather than be identified as a “Snoop Dogg song.” The orchestrations continue with the very eastern-sounding “White Flag.” U.K. Grime rappers Kano and Bashy explode into a quirky back-and-forth on the song, which is bookended by The Lebanese National Orchestra for Oriental Arab Music’s flute/string sections.
“Rhinestone Eyes” takes Plastic Beach into Electronica territory with stabbing synths, and attains the sinister quirkiness that Gorillaz have mastered over the years. The group’s lead vocalist, 2D (voiced by Albarn), makes his first appearance here, singing his nebulous thoughts that are always left to interpretation: “I'm a scary gargoyle on a tower / That you made with plastic power / Your rhinestone eyes are like factories far away / When the paralytic dreams that we all seem to keep / Drive on engines till they weep / With future pixels in factories far away / So call the mainland from the beach / Your heart is now washed up in bleach / The waves are rising for this time of year / And nobody knows what to do with the heat / Under sunshine pylons we'll meet while rain is falling like rhinestones from the sky”
The album’s lead single, the danceable and trippy “Stylo,” is another electronically-charged outing. Synth-laden percussion is paired perfectly with Mos Def’s low-fi rhymes. Just as is the case with Snoop, Mos’ vocals play a backing role. The main attraction here is legendary '60s and '70s singer/songwriter Bobby Womack, whose powerful wailing is something to behold.
Gruff Rhys and De La Soul join in on “Superfast Jellyfish” , a cheerfully-animated marriage that’s a spiritual successor to Gorillaz’ “Rock the House,” while Electronic band Little Dragon assists on the dreamy “Empire Ants.” Rocker Lou Reed helps craft an unexpected gem with his lighthearted song-talking on “Some Kind of Nature,” which adds a bit of soft rock to Plastic Beach’s already-expansive musical repertoire. “On Melancholy Hill” is an '80s-infused delight, while the title track has a touch of Surf Rock and Spaghetti Western influences, and features a high-profile union of Mick Jones and Paul Simonon.
Complaints regarding Plastic Beach are minor, particularly considering its astounding ambitions. While not flawless in execution like Demon Days, Gorillaz’ third effort is, nonetheless, brilliant much more often than not. Particularly, Mos Def is uninteresting on “Sweepstakes,” the rapper’s second contribution to the album which drags on for far too long (“White Flag” could stand to be a touch shorter as well). Also, in an instance of botched track list sequencing, “Cloud of Unknowing” is the penultimate track, though clearly ought to close out the show. Instead, “Pirate Jet” has the last slot, making the otherwise excellent song seem like an afterthought.
Ultimately, where Plastic Beach ranks among its predecessors is an argument for the fans. Undeniable, however, is that it is the most cinematic and chilled-out Gorillaz album to date. No, there’s no smash hit like a “Clint Eastwood” or “Feel Good Inc.,” and nothing like the most underappreciated dance track of all time, “Dare” – but who says there has to be? If there’s one thing that the virtual quartet of 2D, Russel, Noodle and Murdoc aren’t about, it’s rules. So set aside expectations, and enjoy a record not quite like anything else you’re ever likely to hear.