Gorillaz Succumb to the iPad on ‘The Fall’

Gorillaz -- "The Fall" -- EMI Records -- 2.5 STARS

COURTESY EMI

There is an app for everything—even album-making. Damon Albarn’s latest brainchild, “The Fall,” was recorded while on tour by using iPad applications like Speak It!, Dub Siren Pro, Mugician, and Solo Synth. Despite its interesting origin, the album pales in comparison to previous studio-recorded Gorillaz records in replacing their minimalism and typically impeccable songwriting with overbearingly digitized arrangements. However, its raw, studio-free yet highly technological sound is striking, and, at times, adds new dimensions to the songs. Damon Albarn maintains some of his power to form densely emotional songs, but the limitations and distractions of the iPad overcome the songs on “The Fall.”

Albarn’s unorthodox recording method hinders the musical quality that Gorillaz fans have come to expect. Some songs consist only of technological gimmicks and fail to achieve the thoughtfully produced sound of other Gorillaz albums like “Plastic Beach.” For instance, album opener “Phoner to Arizona,” comes across as little more than a collection of heavy, creeping synths battling the resounding bass. In “Little Plastic Bags,” Albarn indulges in a 45-second intro of dull, windy synthesizers that delay and then obscure the song itself. The longing in Albarn’s lyrics and singing effectively suggest the feelings of a journey made in isolation, but their effect is hidden behind heavy iPad synthesizers.

The album’s most poignant moments arise from the juxtaposition of the digital landscapes that Albarn creates and the darker organic sound of his voice. On “Revolving Doors,” the first vocal track on the album, Albarn sings wistfully, “Revolving doors what have I done ... Revolving doors what will I become?” These lyrics, and the tone of his voice stand in tragic and fragile contrast with the catchy bassline and deceptively upbeat ukulele, and “Revolving Doors” is one of the most powerful tracks on the album as a result.

On rare occassions, Albarn succeeds in his purely digital pursuits. He creates overwhelming aural chaos on “The Joplin Spider.” Psychedelic synthesizers—which would have been at home on the original soundtrack to “Tron”—combine with heavily processed vocals and a dubstep melody suggestive of M.I.A.’s trademark distorted sound. But, more often than not, the combination of too many superfluous, purely digital sounds destroys the artistry of Albarn’s songwriting and leaves the music feeling self-indulgent and inaccessible.

As this album was written and recorded in transit between tour stops on the most recent Gorillaz tour of North America, there is a tangible sense of movement—the songs rise and fall in volume and frequently shift moods, evoking rolling landscapes and winding highways. “California and the Slipping of the Sun” begins with the sounds of waiting passengers and a train station loudspeaker. The train station sounds slowly melt into acoustic guitars, synthesizers, and eventually a techno beat. The song is one of the album’s more moving and dynamic tracks.

There is also an honest, spontaneous quality to the core of this music, which perhaps stems from the fact that the album was created on the road within 30 days. “HillBilly Man” continues Albarn’s trend of unexpected yet engaging musical choices: a calm, pensive beginning suddenly transitions into minimalist, electronic sounds and scratchy turntables. Damon Albarn’s pleading falsetto gently lilts over the sounds, and the contrast between the disparate sounds is is poignant.

Though the highly portable medium of the iPad differs from standard recording methods, the album’s excessive reliance on technology causes it to lose the more human qualities of Albarn’s songwriting. Though appealing in the abstract, the album itself is underwhelming.

—Staff writer Soyoung Kim can be reached at soyoungkim@college.harvard.edu.

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