Part 3 of #GorillazWeek is here, with the polarizing and yet very layered Plastic Beach…
RECYCLING IS GOOD.
REALLY GOOD. PLEASE RECYCLE.
Now we’ve got the message of this album across (how it wasn’t the soundtrack to the film Avatar is beyond me), we can go and review the third studio album from Gorillaz, Plastic Beach.
Released in 2010, although originally intended to be a Gorillaz project called Carousel, this album sees Albarn taking more of the ropes in terms of the production, all the while giving us an introduction into the future of the band, with a more spacey feel to the LP and features dotted around a lot more frequently.
These features range in terms of profile, too. Rap icons Snoop Dogg and Mos Def are lending hands at opposite ends of the track list, while frequent collaborators De La Soul make an impact on Superfast Jellyfish. Beneath that you have contributions from the word-count eaters National Orchestra for Arabic Music, as well as the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble.
Any resemblances to previous Gorillaz albums can be dismissed as quickly as the [Orchestral] Intro track, as while Demon Days may share this in name, Plastic Beach sets its stall out early, with an impactful and resonant minute of what is essentially remixed sounds of a large ship. However, the transition to Welcome to the World of the Plastic Beach is a smooth one, and you are treated to your first portion of what was at this stage un-Gorillaz music; Snoop Dogg’s zen and engrossed vocals paired with a scratchy yet enjoyable beat, to complete what is essentially an extended intro.
Things get even more different on the track White Flag, a song flooded with features from the aforementioned National Orchestra for Arabic Music, plus grime icons Kano & Bashy. This altogether meshes into something a bit undefinable in terms of genre, that is an impressive song in its own right but to me is one of the more forgettable on the album.
Therein lies the biggest problem for me with Plastic Beach. The band’s past success, coupled with exciting features makes nearly every song under more pressure than its predecessors to be really good. While there aren’t many, if any, really undesirable tracks across the entire album, the songs for the most part don’t live up to a hype, which leaves you feeling rather underwhelmed on a first listen or two.
However, songs like the title track Plastic Beach, but in particular Stylo, are mind-bendingly good. The formers production gives the song a real claustrophobic but yet immersive feel, with the experimental 2D vocals coming across perfectly with the extra instrumentals supplied by The Clash members Paul Simonon and Mick Jones.
Stylo is more of an event, backed up with the high budget video featuring Bruce Willis, but it is more Bobby Womacks hook that gives the bones of this song enough meat to allow it to be feasted on even now. It’s a real standout moment for the album and a song that deserves to be thought of in top 10 Gorillaz songs of all time.
The best song on Plastic Beach, and on its day the best song Gorillaz have ever released, is the most popular single from this album, On Melancholy Hill. With no features, no backup in terms of instrumentals a la Stylo, this is Albarn stripping it all back, and doing it all himself, with no features to be seen. It’s a beauty of a song, slow without being sad, inspirational without being corny, and simply one of the most layered tracks of the decade, with an expertly performed verses from Albarn/2D themselves.
It’s not pure Gorillaz, but it’s one of those occasions where the song is so good it doesn’t even matter. The only thing that annoys me is the songs placement within the track list, it would have been so much more resonant should it have been the closer, rather than the particularly average Pirate Jet.
The other two solo tracks on this album previously unmentioned, Rhinestone Eyes and Broken, follow On Melancholy Hill’s remit of sorts, both of which injected with a dose of testosterone in their production, which may take the shine off compared to the albums best, but Rhinestone Eyes in particular stands up well enough to be a solid Gorillaz single.
Even though the features may at times be forgettable, I have to praise Plastic Beach for getting the balance near enough just right throughout in terms of it’s amount of Gorillaz vocals still present on the album. The features can be as good as they want, but this is a Gorillaz record, and that’s what people will have bought/streamed this album intending to listen to. The torch-passing Some Kind of Nature does this best, with the almost turn-taking nature of the entire song.
Plastic Beach is a difficult album to define, perhaps more difficult than anything previous or since in the Gorillaz discography. It’s message undoubtedly clear, it’s musical intentions perhaps less so. While the argument is there that this is still attached to songs from the self-titled album and particularly Demon Days at its core (songs like Superfast Jellyfish and To Binge could easily be placed on the sophomore effort with change in pacing), this album offers brushes of a sound we hadn’t signed up for, nor were we requesting.
At times the album appears to be producing new sounds for the band, like on White Flag & Glitter Freeze, throwing them out there to then bury its head in the sand for the inevitable disagreement on quite what this kind of Gorillaz is. It may be more grown up than its previous work, but that’s not to say the adult hasn’t picked up one or two dirt habits shaking off adolescence.