By Alex Szeptycki
Song Machine rejuvenates the band’s core identity; it is the best music Gorillaz has made in a decade.
Gorillaz, a distinctive multimedia project that masquerades as a cartoon band, has had a bit of a rough decade. It started with the triumph of their 2010 environmental concept album Plastic Beach, but that was followed by inconsistent musical output and a limited vision. Damon Albarn, a creative director of sorts for Gorillaz, recognized this and put the band on hiatus. After returning from a lengthy break, the band’s efforts fell flat: digital rockers 2D, Murdoc, Noodle, and Russell were usually inconsistent, at times completely checked out. Their once genre-bending creativity lacked verve. Now Gorillaz is changing up the format: their new album, Song Machine, Season 1: Strange Times, is made up of a series of singles, with an intense focus on guest collaboration. The result is a rejuvenation of the band’s core identity; it is the best music they’ve made in a decade.
The deep, rich sounds of Song Machine command the listener’s attention from start to finish. Producers Albarn and Remi Kabaka Jr. have crafted an exquisitely varied lineup of songs that reach back to Gorillaz’s impressive roots. Their chameleonic blend of funk, rock, hip-hop, and pop drives the album, this time guided by a number of steady hands. At times, the music can be dark: “Pac-Man” is driven by a devilish, bassy groove that lays a grimy foundation for 2D’s eerie choral vocals, “You can freak me out/You can throw me in the lion pit.” The song is lent an extra dimension by way of a multifaceted guest verse from LA MC ScHoolboy Q, who
spits deftly over a beat that shifts from ominous boom-bap to more mellowed-out fare. “I shattered my thoughts to get out my shell/Why would I want to hold my tongue to tuck in my tales,” he raps, skating over Gorillaz’s instrumental in a dynamic performance that adds to this brash, slightly spooky track.
At the same time, Song Machine can lighten the mood. “Desole” matches crunchy drums with playful guitar riffs, setting up an antic contrast with 2D’s forlorn breakup ode. “Desole, tous mes phantoms sont bleus” (All my ghosts are blue), he sings. Malian vocalist Fatoumata Diawara’s airy, uplifting harmonies pair well with the song’s melancholic bliss. The track is also bolstered by some of the finest songwriting on the album; an extensive horn section warms the back half of the tune considerably, carrying it in an unexpected direction.
The sonic variety of Gorillaz provides a natural platform for the album’s myriad guest appearances. This isn’t new for the group. This is the same band that put Snoop Dogg and Lou Reed on the same record (and made it work). On Song Machine, the eclectic roundup of collaborators continues to grow. The most daring of these team-ups is “The Pink Phantom,” a downcast ballad where Baltimore singer/rapper 6lack clashes magnificently with glam legend Elton John. 6lack’s vocals are desolate and restrained; he’s on the edge of despair as he sings “I tried to tell you that I love you but I’m choked up/You forgot and that makes me feel like no one.” Elton’s choruses, meanwhile, are pure bombast: “In a sky filled with diamonds/Where the world fell silent/I’ll be waiting for you on the other side.” Their vocals intertwine and carom off each other, the tension making this clash of worlds a success.
Of course, the album’s long list of visitors would mean nothing if they weren’t used properly. Thankfully, Albarn and Kabaka arrange their guests with skillful aplomb –they match artists to arrangements that accentuate their talents. Beck’s campy vocals fit perfectly into the deranged, peppy energy of “Valley of the Pagans,” which manages to capture the acrid “LA is so fake” attitude without ever becoming serious enough to devolve into cynical drivel. Lyrics like “She’s a plastic Cleopatra on a throne of ice/She’s a hemophiliac with a dying battery life” hammer home that this is meant to be an outlandish lampoon. Elsewhere, a sparse, disjointed beat is the perfect skeletal backdrop for London rapper Octavian: his gravelly, half-sung delivery is gloomy yet enticing, his cries of “We could be immortal” both aspirational and desperate. Echoing guitars and spectral pianos stop and start, as if they are refusing to resolve where the tune stands.
Occasionally, the whirlwind of styles and features can befuddle the guests or Gorillaz themselves. “Chalk Tablet Towers” is bouncy and wonderfully soft; backing “ohs” contrast with 2D’s melancholic cries of “I wanna get drunk/I wanna get stoned.” But guest artist St. Vincent is almost nowhere to be found — save for her faint backing vocals.“Dead Butterflies” suffers from an opposite problem. The nocturnal trap beat is relatively generic fare for Gorillaz; here is it livened up by energetic contributions from Roxani Arias and Kano. Both songs are excellent, but they lack the vibrant depth the rest of the album offers.
The overall level of excellence on Song Machine is very high. There’s “Aries,” a pitch-perfect New Order homage featuring Peter Hook himself. His signature bass tone dominates the track, enhancing 2D’s soft intonations of “I’m a model and it’s uncomplicated/You can play a happy tune on me.” This is a blissful ode to loneliness — and effortlessly danceable. “Momentary Bliss” generates excitement because it is so aggressively eccentric. 2D’s languid refrains of “We can do so much better than this/Mausoleum faces and momentary bliss” are juxtaposed with accelerating shouts from UK rapper Slowthai and Sacramento hardcore outfit Slaves. The result resembles an exercise in sweaty pub rock spiced up with raucous punk flavoring. The track’s harrowing contrasts give it an unusual drive, strange as the disparities may be.
Gorillaz desperately needed this kind of reinvigorating change, though the irony is that Song Machine goes back to the ingredients that made the band great in the first place. The lush, diverse sounds, impeccable songwriting, and exhilarating guest roster makes this the kind of reboot that not only refreshes, but resurrects.
Note: A few days after this review was published, Emo Baby, musician and ex-partner of Octavian (featured on “Friday 13th”), came forward in a
series of Instagram posts and tweets, detailing a history of emotional and physical abuse perpetrated by Octavian. He has denied the charges but Octavian has now been dropped from his US press team, as well as UK PR firms Technique Publicity and Pattern Publicity. The author would like to extend his support for Emo Baby, and to condemn all forms of emotional, sexual and/or physical abuse.
Alex Szeptycki is a writer from Charlottesville Virginia. He recently graduated from Stanford University, Majoring in American Studies with a focus in contemporary art and pop culture. He’s currently working as a freelance writer at The Arts Fuse while navigating post grad life in a pandemic.