We’ve had a chance to hear a few bits from Gorillaz’ third album Plastic Beach – “Stylo” featuring Mos Def and Bobby Womack, the De La Soul and Gruff Rhys-guesting “Superfast Jellyfish” and the Murdoc-hosted “pirate radio” stream — but Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett’s conceptual cartoon crew offer albums with narrative arcs best absorbed from beginning to end, like an animated feature. Especially when the cast is so massive — right, Bruce Willis? — and when they’ve got a message (in a bottle that refuses to decompose).
As we mentioned after our first listen, the collection’s a little more subdued and somber than the previous two Gorillaz records. Which might be expected from an album inspired by polluted plastic oceans. So you get the fun-time kid’s music of “Superfast Jellyfish” — a character (and cereal) brought to life by De La Soul (“All hail King Neptune / and his water breathers!”), Super Furry Animal Gruff Rhys, and a deep nod to The Who Sell Out — but more often it’s trip-hopped ice. Actually, the introduction’s also pretty joyous. After the “Orchestral Intro” — which is what it says it is and no more — we get Snoop Dogg and the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble setting the scene and gathering the kids around (“I need your focus”) via the positive slogans of “Welcome To The World Of The Plastic Beach”: The revolution will be televised, the polluted ocean isn’t hopeless, we should push peace and lemonade in the shade, etc.
That’s all prelude. The album proper begins with posi-core standout “White Flag,” a jaunty flute-and-hand-drummed piece fronted by Kano and Bashy and flesh-out via the National Orchestra For Arabic Music (the gorgeously rich opening strains could go on forever). It gallops beautifully into “Rhinestone Eyes,” which introduces the slightly downcast strain that washes up here and there on the Plastic Beach. It’s a 2-D love song, the backdrop offering a catchy, sharp contrast to the codeine vocalizations: The waves are rising, hearts are frozen, and it’s raining rhinestones not diamonds.
Outside of “White Flag,” the album feels sturdiest when it moves into darker after-hours fare. See, for instance, the much played disco dementia of Bobby Womack and Mos Def’s “Stylo”: It’s pop for a 2AM dance floor. Same goes for “Empire Ants,” which starts out as airy Albarn ballad then finds Little Dragon emoting in an icy club. But you have to go through the sunny (and, ok, radioactive) “Superfast Jellyfish” before getting past the doorman.
Mark E. Smith shows up on a gruff and fuzzy apocalyptic tip to offset the shiny laser tag of “Glitter Freeze,” but you wish his talents were put to better, less-Burroughs-esque use. Lou Reed, on the other hand, offers what Lou Reed is supposed to offer on “Some Kind Of Nature.” In that intonation that’s as familiar as your father’s, he’s talking (a beat behind Albarn’s croon) about plastics, foils, barbiturates, some kind of soul, some kind of gold, some kind of mixture — and that all we are is stars (i.e. dust, i.e. not plastic).
Toward the middle of the album, the guests fade away for a bit and the core band delivers “On Melancholy Hill” — Damon emoting over a danceable, bubbly ’80s-romantic beat “you are my medicine / when you’re close to me” from atop a hill lined with plastic trees — and “Broken,” which feels like an electronic take on a Richard Hawley-like ballad and continues the “distant stars” thing (this time backed by plasma screens and a little more romance). Both work.
These more straightforward tracks fold into the discombobulating chant-a-long “Sweepstakes,” Mos Def the master of bouncy rhymes and shout outs: “Sweepstakes, you’re a winner,” etc. Cool space-dub-meets-high-school-band production. The title track features the Clash’s Mick Jones and the Clash’s/The Good, The Bad & The Queen’s Paul Simonon, so you’d think to expect a few more electric strings on it, but after the opening soul-rock haze, it’s the curious warping swirl of trilling electronics and little green monsters that’s in clearest focus. The guitars are there, yeah, but in disembodied form … why not?
Plastic Beach starts wrapping up on a couple mellow notes: A true dénouement. We get Little Dragon again on the circus-lilting/longing duet, “To Binge” (“Have to tell you I love you so much these days, it’s true,” awww) and Womack returns (this time with the sinfonia ViVA orchestra and seagulls) for the lapping beach sounds and call for sunshine via the airy, stringed lost-at-sea soul of “Cloud Of Unknowing.” The final crystallization of the collection’s message appears on the brief bouncier talk-along Pirate Jet” coda: 100-year running taps are wasting water, people are plastic but plastic will last longer than us, and we’re all connected, etc.
When you take Plastic Beach apart, some of the songs lose their power. But befitting an album about an ocean, the collection gains momentum via the song-to-song ebb and flow. There’s a lot to digest. It works both as a conceptual piece and also as a collection of danceable pop. These are dance songs for the planet, love songs for Mother Earth. And, for a bunch of cartoon characters, it does feel especially alive and human. Now It’s up to you how you approach their two cents, litterbug.
Plastic Beach is out March 9 in the U.S. via Virgin.