Twenty years on, the existence of Gorillaz still seems somewhat implausible. Throughout pop history, there have been plenty of drastic reinventions — artists who, rather than just adopting a new identity to explore a new sound, reemerged with a completely different set of thematic concerns, a completely altered ethos. Still: Damon Albarn went from being one of the foremost artists of the ’90s Britpop craze, a genuine celebrity and an adored songwriter (in the UK, at least), to a man who began making quirky, genre-agnostic music behind the veneer of a couple cartoon characters — and the latter project went on to completely overshadow the former (in the US, at least). It’s one of those things you take for granted until you step back and remember just how mystifying a trajectory it is. But when the third Gorillaz album Plastic Beach arrived, 10 years ago today, the project was at its peak. Damon Albarn was Gorillaz, and that was it.
Well, sort of. Several things had happened in Albarn’s career over the course of the ’00s, all of them parallel transformations that eventually solidified his status of a prolific musician and producer, not just Blur’s wayward frontman. At the same time Blur was crumbling around the turn of the century, Albarn’s interests were spreading out. Amidst starting Gorillaz, his love of global music began to flourish, culminating in projects like 2002’s Mali Music. But by the mid-’00s, Blur had broken up and Albarn could focus on Gorillaz, bringing a more coherent vision to the project on 2005’s Demon Days. Even when Blur reunited for a handful of shows in 2009, Albarn insisted there would be no further touring or recording. What once seemed like a a strange lark on the side of Blur was now, essentially, Albarn’s new full-time gig.
The success of Demon Days, with ubiquitous singles like “Feel Good Inc.” introducing him to a whole new generation of young American listeners who likely had no clue about Blur, might’ve helped in that. But then it took five years for a Gorillaz followup to arrive. In the interim, he started another band — the Good, The Bad, And The Queen — that released a self-titled album in 2007. Then he spent some time making an opera, and then he finally brought back Gorillaz in 2010. When Plastic Beach arrived, it felt like the first full-fledged Albarn album in three years, but it also represented Gorillaz reemerging five years on with a new level of power and cachet.
From the bleary-eyed experiments of Gorillaz’ self-titled 2001 debut, Albarn had already greatly expanded the scope of the project — Demon Days flowed together as one long journey, a concept album tapestry made up of different voices flitting in and out. Before Plastic Beach, he and his Gorillaz co-conspirator, the artist Jamie Hewlett, had planned a different project called Carousel that would take this conceit to its limit. Rather than an album, Carousel was meant as something to be “presented by” Gorillaz, with the two men at the helm having decided it was not a band nor a set of fictional characters but a broad umbrella under which different artists could presumably present their work. That project never came to fruition. Instead, we got Plastic Beach: the full realization of Gorillaz and its multi-faceted nature, a zenith making good on Gorillaz’ path to that point and also the beginning of the end of Gorillaz’ first act.
Gorillaz always had a vaguely post-apocalyptic slant to it, and this time around the topic was the environment. Compelled, simply enough, by sitting on the beach and taking in all the litter, for Plastic Beach Albarn imagined a world overrun and destroyed by cheap, ephemeral products become detritus. There was a light theme of environmentalist concerns, but none of the Gorillaz albums are that specific — it’s more like Albarn starts with a prompt that opens up into a playground in which he and his collection of guests can run amok.
Was there a point A to point B on Plastic Beach? Was there any discernible message, or specific difference in the lives of Gorillaz’ characters between Demon Days and now? It didn’t really matter, and you could spend as much or as little time paying attention to any of that as usual with Gorillaz. Otherwise, musically speaking, the album offered perhaps the zaniest, most vibrant iteration of the Gorillaz vein of Albarn’s songwriting before or since.
The world of Plastic Beach might’ve been polluted and in ruins, but it was also strikingly vivid. After the end times vibes of Demon Days, Albarn brought Gorillaz out into the daylight. Amidst the customary genre explorations — grime MCs Bashy and Kano rapping alongside Middle Eastern string motifs on “White Flag,” Mos Def and resurrected soul singer Bobby Womack taking turns over the nocturnal funk of lead single “Stylo” — there were a whole lot of glistening synth arrangements and woozy pop songs, either shining like jewels peaking through the sand or melting and smearing like they had sat out in the sun for just a bit too long. If there was anything meta about the album, it was like Albarn was playing with the disposability of pop music, taking recognizable forms and knocking them every so slightly askew, delivering songs that could feel sickly-sweet but also slightly toxic.
While Demon Days was not lacking for notable cameos — De La Soul drove “Feel Good Inc.” and “DARE” wouldn’t be complete without the interplay between Rosie Wilson’s coo and slurred adlibs courtesy of the Happy Mondays’ Shaun Ryder — Albarn corralled a more expansive and overall more impressive roster for Plastic Beach. Snoop Dogg acted as if he was overseeing the proceedings, playing ringleader for the album’s intro and manifesto “Welcome To The World Of The Plastic Beach.” Mos Def, in addition to his verses punctuating “Stylo,” took center stage on the roiling, runaway “Sweepstakes.” (Despite the adventurousness of colliding genres and often showcasing rap in Gorillaz’ music, these ventures could often feel like awkward pairings; “Sweepstakes” was the rare Gorillaz rap song that played to the guest’s strength’s impeccably, Mos’ dexterity as a rapper allowing him to nimbly jump around the unpredictable crest of the track.)
De La Soul returned, though rather than recapturing the pop genius of “Feel Good Inc.,” they settled for the more throwaway (yet still giddily enjoyable) faux-jingle “Superfast Jellyfish” alongside Super Furry Animals frontman Gruff Rhys. Albarn went from having another band with Paul Simonon to having him and Mick Jones show up on the album’s hazily infectious title track. Last time, he’d gotten a spoken word appearance from Dennis Hopper; now when it came to nabbing a boomer icon he got Lou Fucking Reed to do extremely Lou Reed vocals over “Some Kind Of Nature.” (When I saw Gorillaz play Madison Square Garden on the Plastic Beach tour, not only had Albarn recruited Simonon and Jones to join his live band, but he also convinced Reed to come out and perform “Some Kind Of Nature.” Reed spent most of it angrily gesturing over to sidestage about his vocals.)
The tension in Gorillaz, however, has always been between the idiosyncratic and once-groundbreaking grab-bag whirlwind of sounds and voices, and the fact that the project is still best when Albarn appears somewhere up front and center. As such, Plastic Beach’s highlights were the songs where his presence was clearest, whether on the aforementioned title track or the swooning, gorgeous synth-pop of “On Melancholy Hill” (which remains one of his finest compositions this century, no matter the vehicle). “Rhinestone Eyes” and particularly the melancholic “Broken” were more strung-out renditions of a similar Albarn aesthetic, two of the more world-weary Plastic Beach tracks but simultaneously more sophisticated extensions of the Gorillaz sound first sketched out on the debut. Otherwise there was “Empire Ants,” Albarn’s stunning team-up with Little Dragon, in which he sang over a pleasant, floaty poolside lament until throbbing, luminous synths bubbled up and Little Dragon took over.
Overall this was the connective tissue and most alluring aspect of Plastic Beach, and of Gorillaz in general. No matter the nature of the songs or collabs, one thing you could mostly rely on Albarn for was an array of perfectly calibrated sounds and sharp production. Plastic Beach sprawled out further and featured less of a distinct arc than Demon Days, and yet everything fit right into this technicolor Armageddon that Albarn had created. The chintzy-sounding songs played into the debris and wreckage of the album’s narrative; the songs that radiated were the ones that made it a dreamy, exciting display of Albarn’s pop songwriting.
In a sense, Plastic Beach was the culmination of Gorillaz’ growth and also the conclusion, for a time. Following its release, Albarn took it on the road in theoretically the band’s most organic form, shedding the artifice of screens shielding the live band and allowing himself to play frontman once more over this effervescent, bizarre collection of pop music he’d built up over the preceding decade.
Another Gorillaz album originated from that tour. Originally released as a fan club download on Christmas of 2010 with an official release arriving the following spring, The Fall was written in transit across America, with the then-novel concept that Albarn composed much of it using his iPad. An impressionistic document of the wasteland, The Fall was more of a solo endeavor and works as a kind of post-script to the first Gorillaz run. By the spring of 2012, Albarn was claiming Gorillaz was over and he and Hewlett had fallen out.
In the end they weren’t away all that much longer than the time elapsed between Demon Days and Plastic Beach. Gorillaz returned with their fourth full-fledged album, Humanz, in 2017. Initially, it didn’t feel as if was quite as triumphant a comeback as fans might’ve hoped — and not just because it was a concept album presenting a night on which Donald Trump became president and everyone’s expectations were upended, arriving almost half a year after that had already happened in real life. If Plastic Beach had a lot of voices, Humanz felt stuffed with guests — an ever-more impressive and tasteful lineup, but one that almost totally crowded Albarn’s own voice out of the work. There was still strong material on Humanz and its Fall-esque primarily-solo rapid-fire followup The Now Now — and whatever Song Machine turns into, Gorillaz’ most recent single “Désolé” is one of the best songs to come out of the reunited era — but it was hard not to feel as if Plastic Beach signaled some kind of finale.
Maybe part of it is all of us getting older, maybe part of it is how the pop landscape has transformed over two decades of Gorillaz output. But it still feels as if there’s a specific kind of magic to the first Gorillaz chapter, a kind of dizzying sense of discovery, dystopian stories presenting a utopian vision of mingling artists and cultures. We were hearing the project transform in real time, as Albarn and Hewlett were struck with new ideas. When they began again with Humanz, it in some ways felt more drained — perhaps reflecting the times more closely than the escapist joys of the older Gorillaz albums. When Gorillaz released Plastic Beach, it still felt like they were creating an entirely different world. Blown-out, colorful, and psychedelic, the album was something approaching a happy ending for that initial trilogy. It left you imagining all the other worlds Gorillaz could yet create.