Premature Evaluation: Gorillaz - Plastic Beach

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.

Comments (18)
  1. this will be the soundtrack to my summer.

  2. Never a dull moment with Mr. Albarn. This will indeed be the soundtrack my summer’s soundtrack, and in fact it’s already my spring’s.

  3. I surprisingly really like this album. Some very catchy stuff here

  4. I really like this album as well. It works awesomely as an album and there are tracks that can stand by themselves as well. You have to listen to it completely through at least once to understand what they were aiming for. And they it it…oh did they hit it.

  5. I’ve only made it to fourth track so far and its alright. But maybe Im being biased cause I’m holding it to the standard of Demon Days which was amazing.

  6. pretty good on a first listen, especially compared to broken bells which was a bit of a let down.

    After listening though, I went and read the entire wikipedia entry on the band, and I must say the Gorillaz would make a much better comic book than band.

  7. I’m a massive Blur fan and a big Gorillaz fan, but this album sounds boring. Hate to say it.
    Maybe I just need to hear the album some more.

  8. I’ll add my name to the “impressed” column. I think it’s one of the better albums I’ve heard this year. I love albums that grow on you and reveal themselves slowly, and I think Plastic Beach is definitely going to be one of those for me. Each time I’ve listened to it I like it a little more, different songs make themselves noticed, and so on – and to me, that type of intricacy is the mark of a good album. I do agree that there’s a lot to digest, but thus far I’m having a great time doing so.

  9. I’ve probably listened to this album a good 4 or 5 times now and it keeps getting better. The album peaks towards the middle starting with Stylo and anding with Broken, but solid the whole way through. It’s a little early to say right now but this could end up being the best album of 2010.

  10. SO I LISTENED to this thing BECAUSE I’VE started reading THIS site, and I GOTTA SAY this shit is KINDA CATCHY. NOT what I’m normally INTO BUT I’VE had it on REPEAT WHILE doing some EDITING and it’s fuckin GROWING on me LIKE Gooby.

  11. Favorite song is definitely the title track. It sounds so familiar

  12. I’ve come to basically expect that anything Damon Albarn does musically is going to make me literally smile while listening – this guy is an absolute conduit for such simple and beautiful melody – the kinds you’ve never heard before, but, like rimbimhoot said above, so comfortingly familiar.

  13. A++, would listen to again.

    The best song is probably Some Kind of Nature, but I LOVE Superfast Jellyfish, it sounds like the theme song to some impossibly happy childrens’ show.

  14. This album just keeps getting better. At first I was more into the album up to and including Melancholy Hill, but last night the second half really revealed itself to me, especially Cloud of Unknowing. Take some time to just sit and absorb that song without distractions and if you’re in the right mood it’ll be amazing.

    At least it was for me.

    Just a fantastic album overall. I have nothing but good things to say.

  15. Cloud Of Unknowing…. Bobby Womack’s part on this track will be stuck in my head for ages

  16. Loved it. Really listenable, hypnotic, electric but not too electric, cool/ironic guest appearances and lyrics–what more could you ask for from Gorillaz??

  17. I’ll admit i’ve been a huge Damon Albarn fan since i was a teen, but this album is great. Rhinstone Eyes and the self titled track are amazing. I’ve been waiting for this album for a while and i’m extremely pleased. I’ve got my fingers crossed for another Good, the Bad, and the Queen album.

  18. Very solid album. Better than Demon Days in my opinion per the production and overall flow. Cameo work is strong and each song has a different personally, but it all works. Stylo is def. where it picks up for me and then it sort of bounces back and forth from chill to subtle thrill. Absolutely brilliant release timing for them, just as spring arrives so does an album to enjoy while the months heat up.

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