16 years or so ago, the lead singer of Blur and and the co-creator of Tank Girl had an idea, to make a band that, for all intents and purposes, didn’t really exist. Something must have worked, as 2017 will see Gorillaz release their fifth studio album Humanz. In light of this, I will be reviewing each Gorillaz album, one a day, including the new album on Friday April 28th.
We begin with, well, the beginning…
Imagine being able to make an album with absolutely no rules set out for you. No remit, no outside pressures, just you as an artist able to use your inbuilt creativity and ambition to make a record exactly how you want. Whether that was the intention for Damon Albarn and Gorillaz, or merely that it was a side-project which hockeysticked into mainstream music consciousness is up for debate, but what isn’t is the overall quality of the first effort from the virtual band.
If you are unfamiliar with the fabric of Gorillaz, let me do some introductions. The lead member, Murdoc, is different in that he isn’t the lead vocalist. While he sits on bass, bringing the grit and rock star personality to the band, the vocal performances are given by 2-D, voiced of course by Damon Albarn. Foreign imports Noodle and Russel, from Japan and American respectively, make up the foursome, with Noodle primarily playing guitar but adding vocals from time to time, and Russel on drums and getting inhabited by spirits of rap artists from time to time. Clear?
On that subject, we start with the self-titled albums biggest hit, the core reason that Gorillaz have enjoyed such longevity that has allowed them to release what will soon be 5 studio albums. Clint Eastwood is a beauty of a single, the 2-D chorus in perfect harmony with strong and catchy vocals from Del the Funky Homosapien. The future of Gorillaz is painted in high-profile features, and this was the watershed moment for that future. They had a song that encapsulated everything they were trying to portray, and it was hugely successful for its moment.
Rock the House, the other Del feature from this album, is very much the lesser of the two. The features vocals are slower, more relaxed and this rather takes away the energetic feel that made Clint Eastwood so great.
Tomorrow Comes Today and 19-2000 complete the singles list from this album, and while I enjoy the former’s heavy drums and quite melancholy feel, I do think that 19-2000 is one of the most overrated Gorillaz songs of all time. It feels out of place within the album, it’s sound has a more joyful feel than the rest of Gorillaz. That may seem like a strange criticism for a song, but within the album I don’t feel that 19-2000 does anything stronger than another track can.
The strength of this album for me lies in its hidden gems, of which there are plenty. Clint Eastwood may arguably be the best song on this album, and it is a strong argument, but the nod goes to Slow Country for me. Tucked in just before the albums conclusion (ignoring all bonus tracks and remixes anyway), I love the wiry, haunting vibe that it has, which produces a unique and stripped back performance from Albarn. It’s songs like this which make me think this is why he wanted to create Gorillaz in the first place, due to how other-worldly it feels in direct comparison to any Blur song.
There are other cuts on this album that push the boundaries of Damon Albarn’s previous work on this album, with Man Research and New Genius being two prime examples of this. Both songs being similar in structure gives you the impression that while this album contains no direct theme (and why would it, in fairness, it’s a debut album from a virtual band), the true cohesion is inbuilt from the solid foundations laid on most tracks. Nearly all of them have a moody, if not depressive feel portrayed throughout, which allows Albarn/2-D to shine vocally even in spite of what is in all fairness a lyrically weak album, a couple of catchy hooks on singles like 19-2000 and Clint Eastwood aside.
With the benefit of hindsight, Gorillaz served as a foundation for their future, giving them a back-history to play with, in order to try and refine and improve upon within future projects. It’s like an artist going to paint his next muse, and having his favourite colours ready-mixed on his pallet in advance.
Gorillaz is a debut album that serves as a hugely satisfying starter band, breaking down musical boundaries when swathes of people were ready to dismiss the project in it’s entirety should this album had have been anything other than great.