This week, our feature album is Humanz by Gorillaz. Can you believe it has been over fifteen years since we were first introduced to the avatars that are 2-D, Murdoc, Noodle and Russel? It's taken me 10 of those to dislodge the image of Shaun Ryder's disembodied head emerging from the cupboard like a hard-living Harry Potter. Contrary to popular opinion at the time, Gorillaz were not the first example of a virtual band. That accolade appears to have been retrospectively credited to Alvin and the Chipmunks although each decade seems to have dipped a toe into the non-corporeal waters (including The Archies and Josie and the Pussycats who have recently experienced a resurgence in popularity due to Netflix's Riverdale). Gorillaz are, however, responsible for a revival of the concept towards the end of the millennium and can (according to Norris McWhirter at least) claim to be the most successful virtual band of all time. Humanz is their fifth studio album and their first in six years.
Without wanting to damn with faint praise, there are things to like about Humanz. Lead single Saturnz Barz feels like a haunting journey into the unknown, surrounded by ghosts, guided only by the beacon-like voice of Popcaan. Synthesised throwback song Andromeda fuses euphoric nostalgia with a late Bowie vibe for what is probably the album's best track. Anthony Hamilton's voice on the tremendously dark Carnival crackles with a mischievous energy. There are nice, if fleeting, contributions from luminaries such as Rag'n'Bone Man, Grace Jones and the iridescent Carly Simon. We Got The Power, a reasonably uplifting ode to love conquering all, is notable primarily for featuring Noel Gallagher on backing vocals and reminding us what pompous nonsense the whole Blur/Oasis/Britpop debacle actually was. Unfortunately, the pomposity doesn't stop there.
Gimmicks are strange and unpredictable things. Be it Morrissey's gladioli, Kiss' intergalactic war paint, Angus Young's school uniform or Dido's dreary monotone intonation (wait, is that one?), who decides which attention-seeking efforts fall by the wayside and which live on in music folklore? What strange universal force is at play when deciding that Gorillaz would have multi-platinum albums whereas fellow inhuman songster The Crazy Frog would reside only in the shame synapses of a nation for eternity? The answer to the latter is quite simple – Damon Albarn. Shh! It's a secret... blah blah blah. Without the Albarn infusion, Gorillaz exists as nothing more than the equivalent of a year 11 media studies project. Don't get me wrong, the illustrations of cartoonist Jamie Hewlett are nothing short of spectacular but, without the virtuosity of Albarn, the whole thing would be very flat (mild pun intended).
Unfortunately, Humanz doesn't reach the level of the Gorillaz's earlier work and I think one of the reasons is the significantly reduced amount of Albarn on show. This is coupled with an unfortunate combination of the themes being both too diverse and too understated – words that might command attention at any other time find themselves lost in the melange. Compare this with 2005 release Demon Days and there is a severe stylistic void. That album used storytelling and powerful imagery to paint pictures of a world in turmoil. Dirty Harry had you traipsing through the desert in a song that condemned the actions of the military. Dennis Hopper's masterful narration of a simple tale on Fire Coming Out Of The Monkey's Head left us all questioning our own accountability in the exploitation of our world. Kids With Guns scarred us with a scary vision of an unwanted future. Humanz takes on a variety of topics ranging from our over-reliance on technology and the looming shadows of political change to Middle East military intervention and police brutality. It does so, however, with very little in the way of conviction – messages more often than not taking a back seat to melodies which is unfortunate for a band who present such a subversive front.
Musically, there doesn't appear to be any particular stand out track – nothing that will resonate once the album's final silence sets in. As already mentioned, there are some nice flourishes but it feels as though so much creative control has been handed over to collaborators, the record might as well have been called 'Gorillaz and Friendz'. It is the equivalent of a cheese and onion quiche – perfectly pleasant but in dire need of some bacony Albarn to really kick things up a notch. The various interludes feel smarmy and elitist, the redaction of references to Trump and Obama equally so. It is such a shame to see a band that have such a deep well of talent from which to draw release an album that feels so disappointingly two-dimensional (pun very much intended).
Then again, I might be wrong. I am a Musical Moron, after all...
Lyric Of The Week
“With the holograms beside me//I'll dance alone tonight”
Fail to relive past glories
Not enough Damon
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