Six years have passed since the worldwide release of The Fall, the fourth studio album by the genre-juggling and -defying concept band Gorillaz. And now Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett, the men behind the curtains of the stunning and uniquely animated quartet, have released their long-awaited Humanz.
Since their self-titled debut release in 2001, Gorillaz have driven otherwise rare sounds and genres to the forefront of the mainstream music sphere. And they very well may be one of the parties to thank for a broader variety in the current music scene. Over these sixteen years, they have incorporated components of dub, reggae, britpop, rap, and hip hop as a few examples into their overall alternative rock and pop foundations.
While in interviews Albarn and Hewlett teased their fans with the high probability that they would reunite for another album after a falling out between the two, I had come to believe that day would never come. Then about a year ago, they began revamping and flooding their Instagram account with advertisements and art from all their previous albums, sprouting hopes and speculations that they had finally come out of their hiding and would release their fifth album. I, however, assumed that it was only to hype fans up for a reunion tour, nothing special, since other groups had been known to do similarly, much to the later chagrin of the masses. But a couple of weeks after that, they began posting novel images and videos: The Book of Noodle, a short story to explain what had become of the band’s animated guitarist. The following weeks, the rest of the band were represented with their own Books. Then, it was officially confirmed in March – Gorillaz were back, and they were releasing their new album, Humanz, playfully sharing the same stylization of the band’s name. And cheers were heard around the globe.
But, my tone quieted and became concerned as an interview was released between The New York Times and Albarn in late April. When the inquiry arose regarding the inspiration of the new album, the answer disheartened me: President Donald J Trump. While his victory was still months away, Albarn envisioned a dark new world with him in charge. Yes, Albarn has never shied away from politics in his records, so this should not necessarily be a surprise, but I was desiring an album that, though politically charged, would bring some nuance or at least point the spotlight away from what the media’s own were – and still are – on incessantly. And apparently, he came to share a similar opinion, and censored all mentions of Former President Barack Obama and President Donald Trump. I also feared that this would not be enough fuel to drive an entire full-length project, also looking at the length of each single being revealed in anticipation for the full release.
Unfortunately, my fears were confirmed. What I wonder may have happened in part is the production was rushed as all hands on the album wanted to have it released before its lyrical themes lost relevance, since its release ended up over five months after President Trump’s election. Many of the tracks felt as though they were not sat on long enough to justify being extended into longer songs. Admittedly, the shorter tracks were some of the few I greatly enjoyed and found myself dancing around with in my seat throughout multiple listenings. But would I have enjoyed them as much if they were to be longer? Doubtful. And that’s saddening, because given more time and thought, they may have been even greater. Then there were other songs like Momentz, featuring De La Soul. The hip hop trio De La Soul has formed a highly beneficial relationship with Gorillaz as they have appeared in their two most recent major releases: Demon Days and Plastic Beach. And the tracks in which they were featured were solid, entertaining, well-produced songs, particularly the famous Feel Good, Inc., which is still frequently played on pop stations, twelve years after its release – an impressive lifespan for a pop song. Momentz, however, was three minutes of constant and worsening cringes as I heard poor decision after poor decision in the production process. I sat for three minutes asking myself the question, “How did this make it past the cutting floor?” I was baffled as certain vocal distortions, takes from the vocals, and aspects of the mixing piled up into what is now the official release. And I found myself having similar thoughts throughout the album during tracks, such as: Strobelite, Submission, Charger, and Hallelujah Money.
Great albums can have low points and weak tracks, but my criticisms of Humanz run deeper. For a group known for incorporating elements from a variety of genres relatively unheard in pop music, there was not much going on that I would consider ambitious or fresh. House influence, which was a major focus according to Albarn in the above mentioned interview, is now commonplace. And the rest of the influences are the same story. The foundational style of Humanz is classic Gorillaz, but this time there is little novelty to it that has not already been mastered by other Billboard artists.
Despite the general disappointment, there were some incredibly produced tracks. I loved the drum ‘n’ bass influences in Ascension, and Vince Staples’ performance is exactly what I would expect from a featured artist in a Gorillaz album, known for their abundance of featured artists in each project. Witty, poignant, and confident, Staples adds commentary of the current racial and socio-economic crises of minorities in America. And the fun, fast-pace, uplifting We Got the Power made for an adequate finale for an otherwise grim, depressing album. Faced with deafening degrees of hateful rhetoric or the accusations of hate in the media – touched on in the lyrics throughout the album – the message of this track is refreshing, as sung by both Albarn and Jehnny Beth: We got the power to be loving each other, no matter what happens. And who knows, maybe this premonition of Albarn will come true, and we will see a surge of bridge-building across lines and charity and love in the near future.