Look at the cover of the new Gorillaz album for longer than a passing glance and you’ll begin to notice an uncanny resemblance between the 3D renditions of the virtual band’s animated members and some other notable musicians. While not yet explicitly addressed by anyone from the Gorillaz team, each “bandmate” bears an uncanny resemblance to a fairly iconic face. I can’t be completely sure, but from my perspective here are the allusions: 2D is Jack White, Noodle is Björk, Russell is Cee-Lo Green, and Murdoc is Noel Gallagher. The iconography is hard to miss, yet save for an uncredited Gallagher, none of these artists shows up anywhere on Humanz, the band’s fifth studio album, neither in flesh nor even in spirit. Their depiction here rather seems like another bit of irreverent pop-star gagging by Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett, who have been wringing out ambiguous satire from their cartoon art-pop project for almost two decades now.
It’s unclear what value the puppet-fronted motif is serving Albarn and Hewlett at this point in the Gorillaz narrative, but it’s clear they’re far from finished with it. The rollout for Humanz has promised augmented reality apps, pop-up “Spirit Houses,” and even a 10-episode television series based on the imaginary figureheads. Still, so far as the actual listening experience of the album is concerned, the fictional characters that are packaged with it are entirely superfluous. While initially seeing the band’s virtual mockery of mainstream musician ideals as “an antidote” to people taking themselves too seriously in the music business, Gorillaz have since lost the joke to the pop-stars who outpaced them in self-spoofing over the turn of the decade with personas that saw artifice as the art being sold. And while the band’s shtick was a charming curiosity at the turn of the century — revitalizing a previously failed concept through an inspired aesthetic arriving at just the right time to fully capitalize on interest in the internet — over time and an increasingly confusing mythology, generational attention spans became less adept at the suspension of disbelief required to prop up such an act.
Plus at this point, Albarn is way too famous to be masked behind a flat gag-personality. If he wasn’t already by the time Gorillaz arrived (I mean, he fronted one of the most-important British bands of the last few decades), he certainly is now that this once side-project has ballooned enough to headline music festivals alongside the Who and Björk, such that no one is imagining anyone else’s face but his whenever he dryly croons over the band’s synth-dub reggae-rock. And anyway, the original quartet of characters that comprised this band’s image was already compromised by Albarn’s outsourcing of each album’s key moments to spotlighted guest stars. By the time we got to 2010’s Plastic Beach — Gorillaz’ last full-length if you don’t count the rather slight coda to that era The Fall — Albarn had made it clear that Gorillaz were to be a “carnival” cast of collaborators rather than contained within whatever virtual limitations a four-piece would seemingly suggest.
Plastic Beach, with its many contributing voices and exploratory insistence, had a “playlist” feel to it. This was good for Gorillaz. The project’s always been a space for Albarn to indulge his more experimental whims in a setting that wouldn’t ruin the cohesion of one of his more straightforward releases (see “Crazy Beat” on Blur’s otherwise flawless Think Tank for an example of why this outlet is necessary), and Plastic Beach let him run wild with ideas freed by their ability to exist absent of even himself through his collaborators. Prior to Plastic Beach, Gorillaz albums were less an amusement park branching out of Albarn’s singular vision than they were a product of his commitment to a single producer of choice: Dan The Automator for the self-titled album; Danger Mouse for Demon Days. Those albums are excellent, to be sure, but the self-production and single-minded experimentalism of Plastic Beach marks a distinct separation point, at least structurally, between an album that maintains a level of control tethered to Albarn as Demon Days and the behind-the-boards mentality that made space for strings of singles where he’s not the defining anchor.
Humanz follows this same mentality, but doubles down on the ramifications. Where Plastic Beach maintained a sturdy musical profile bent toward similarly eccentric displays of orchestral pop and tropical rhythms — running along like an in-depth documentary about a mythical world — this new album is sonically scattered to the point of feeling like flipping through disparate TV channels whenever one show goes to commercial break. There are more guests, sitting even more squarely in the spotlight, and rather than loop them into his own single environment, Albarn decides to construct distinct worlds around each of them. Like Plastic Beach, there’s still an overarching concept theoretically tying everything together, but unlike that album it’s not one destination he’s taking you to and fleshing out from song to song, but a rocketship hopping from planet to planet and scratching as much of the surface as possible between take-offs.
Perhaps Albarn had the notion of extraterrestrial exploration in mind when conceiving Humanz, given a dash of song titles referring to cosmic themes (“Saturn Barz,” “Andromeda”), but the intended narrative he’d like you to consider when listening to the album is that of a dystopian dance-party opus. Every artist that worked on this album was told to conceive their parts with electoral disaster in mind, although the album was written back when that was still considered a “what if?” scenario. “Imagine a night where everything that you believed in was turned on its head,” Albarn was said to have asked his collaborators, with the then-implausible notion that Trump could win the US presidential election mere fantasy. “How would you feel?” Of course, we all know what happened next. So is Humanz an accidentally prophetic, unsettling listen in the aftermath of its unexpected new context?
Nah. While there are definitely hints of some doomsday dystopia and the fallibility of man littered throughout the lyrics and overall vibe, Albarn isn’t nearly as frantically single-minded as Father John Misty, and Humanz isn’t to the Gorillaz’ equivalent of Pure Comedy. This album wasn’t meant to prophesize; instead, it does something closer to sermonize. Plastic Beach pulled a similar trick with a holistic socially conscious framework, but the tones used here vary, and they do so drastically. Where the last album opened with Snoop Dogg warning against litter by rhyming, “And the pollution from the ocean…Push peace and keep it in motion,” Humanz explodes into shape with Vince Staples declaring in rapid-step that America is “Where you can live your dreams long as you don’t look like me/ Be a puppet on a string, hanging from a fucking tree.”
But while “Ascension” starts things off with a menacing tinge from Staples’ sharp chest-puffing, this is still a Gorillaz album, and as such it’s also hyperactive and shimmery and deliriously bumping. Albarn risks losing the track to Staples’ all-else-decimating industrial presence, but manages to ground it in punctuating choral bursts and twinkling synth blips. And from there, Humanz immediately settles back into the spectral dance music and dubby pop-rock that has been the closest thing this wide-ranging project has to an MO as can be. Largely, that’s for the best. The most essential tracks here repeat previous tricks to achieve similar heights. Kelela’s divine appearance on “Submission” mirrors the role Little Dragon’s Yukimi Nagano played as Albarn’s vocal foil on Plastic Beach standout “Empire Ants.” De La Soul put in their obligatory album-time on the glitchy funk track “Momentz,” bopping around the song’s chunky breakbeat and dropping only semi-sensical but supremely pleasing allusions. Albarn himself maintains his best practices, such as establishing a topline and then subverting it with an eccentric yet infectious synth-bleed as he does to great effect on the bruised ballad “Busted And Blue.”
And as is the case on any Gorillaz album, there are also some one-trick tunes that quickly hit dead-ends and then plod along stubbornly until they wrap up. “Carnival” squeals and squirms with apocalyptic urgency, but even Anthony Hamilton’s affecting vocal performance can’t save the song from sounding like a whole lot of effort without ever elevating. “Sex Murder Party” is eerie, but too vague both in lyric and sound to amount to much more than a sputtering space-filler. Subverting almost completely the tone of the first song, album closer “We Got The Power” is a bit too rara-kumbaya of an ending given the more cynical proceedings that came before it. That last song in particular feels tacked on, as if rounding this album out on a resigned note, like “Hallelujah Money” would have made for too much of a bummer conclusion, despite the fact that Albarn is notoriously at his best as the unflinching bearer of dismal news.
For what it’s worth, “Hallelujah Money” sounds so much better here than it did isolated as a teaser single. It’s a damning takedown of corporate governance that rings true in our current moment as well as our long-established culture more generally. It’s also a sparkling showcase of English wunderkind Benjamin Clementine, whose deep, hearty voice is akin to a waterfall unspooling poetry like it’s excess rainwater. With regards to 21st century pop music, it’s difficult to find any artist, barring Kanye West, who is as good at drawing out brilliant performances from his collaborators as Albarn. Gorillaz are often an effective canvas for guest stars to deliver career highs — they’re the only reason I ever began paying attention to Little Dragon or have reluctantly forgiven Danger Mouse for all the albums he’s butchered as a producer. Humanz continues this legendary streak, wringing out some of the most wide-eyed verses from the ever-insular Pusha T on the spacey “Let Me Out” and a life-story epic from Popcaan in an impeccable performance on “Saturn Barz” that might finally translate the Jamaican rapper to US audiences.
That’s the sigh of relief for my initial hesitations from a tracklist that seemed a bit too unwieldy to deliver consistent highs. The other is that this thing just zips by. At 20 tracks with five interludes and an intro, I was concerned that Humanz was going the route of the latest Drake and Weeknd albums in pushing an unfocused excess at listeners to the detriment of anyone unwilling to pick apart the gems from the rough. Thankfully, I was wrong, with Humanz clocking in at a breezy 50 minutes. That’s breezy not only in length, but in sound; this is easily the quickest tempoed Gorillaz LP to date, a total reversal of The Fall or Albarn’s underrated solo album in the interim, Everyday Robots. And given the some 40-odd tracks Albarn says he still has at his disposal, it’s nice knowing that this wasn’t just a grab bag from uncoordinated studio sessions scrapped together as an excuse to license 2D on some T-shirts (although rest assured Hewlett’s also working on “new artwork, tour merchandise, a clothing line, and visuals”).
Still, the impossible-to-neglect commercial potential of the band’s iconography can come at odds with the music they’re actually supposed to be selling. Giving the characters a TV show only brings them closer in the imagination to the ever-increasingly related Banana Splits, and those “Spirit Houses” popping up beginning today seem like a Sonos-peddling event moreso than generous fan-service. By now, the conceptual framework has gone from fascinating to negligible to actively burdensome. Gorillaz’ catalogue of music is warm and colorful and loose and lovely, yet capable of going dim and dark and twisted and tingling as well. Meanwhile the “band,” who’ve repeated the same lines we’ve known them for since their inception on the sporadic occasions Albarn and Hewlett are actually gearing up for an album release, are just distracting; hallucinating about haunted slices of pizza while the music they’re supposedly performing goes off about swaggering to survive and late-Capitalist self-destruction behind them.
The biggest problem with the Gorillaz cast existing as an entity separate from Albarn is that they come off not organic or brimming with life as they need to, but rather the manufactured PR entities they are. The narrative around Humanz has been undeniably cluttered between the irreverent antics of these visual icons and the actual thematic message Albarn has been delivering separately. The Gorillaz concept has essentially become too big to function in the way Albarn intends, or in the way a band really should anyhow. Sure these cast members give interviews, but those are tailor made to reinforce self-created narratives no one can dispute because there’s only one source out there to define them. It’s cool that Noodle is creating playlists of bomb female-musicians, but that’s a focus-group tested strategy notches removed from anyone actually making the music. You can dive deep into the rabbit hole to have fun tugging on the threads of the band’s made-up legacy, but you pull just a little firmer than the disbelief you suspended as admission, and these characters unravel as the products they are.
These ideas won’t ever come to you while listening to Humanz, because the music exists wholly separate from the cartoon imagery, regardless of the faces plastered all over the packaging. Albarn continues to deliver singular highs when given the amount of creative freedom afforded him by Gorillaz, and Humanz is a smorgasbord of singles that can and should soundtrack anything from summer barbecues to late-night kickbacks. It’s also a mostly very solid front-to-back album that twists and turns but maintains its heart and mind constantly at a destination of future unity while wrestling with present division. But it comes with all this pointless non-musical baggage that sits at odds with what’s taking place on record. In a way, Humanz is a reflection of our times less because of the post-Trump anxiety by which it’s inspired, but because of its incessant need to sell you something largely unrelated to its stated mission. It’s an album decrying capitalist conduct while engaging wholeheartedly in precisely that. 2D, Murdoc, Russell, and Noodle can cosplay as artistic heroes as a little nod of appreciation to supposed idols, sure, but it’s disappointingly evident they’re merely mannequins on the display rack, not the musicians themselves.
Humanz is out 4/28 via Warner Bros.