It has never been easy to understand the connection between—let alone the mass market success of—a band made up of Britpop star Damon Albarn, comic book artist Jamie Hewlett, and a series of featuring artists that now includes hip-hop producer Danger Mouse, rock legend Lou Reed, and the Lebanese National Orchestra for Oriental Arabic Music. It is even more surprising that these disparate figures, who collectively form Gorillaz, have built a reputation as a hip-hop group. In fact, Gorillaz has always been more influenced by comparatively esoteric genres.
In their latest effort, Gorillaz forego much of the rap/pop sensibility that had previously characterized them for mainstream fans and vaulted them to the Top 40. Instead, “Plastic Beach” delves into eccentric, challenging, and subdued forms of electronica that are morphed by a diverse set of other genres, from classical to funk. This shift is most apparent in the album’s focus on musical production rather than traditional narrative-based songwriting. With the exception of a few rap songs, vocal lines on “Plastic Beach” create only vague impressions, feelings, or associations.
Most important in this artistic development is the dominant theme that characterizes “Plastic Beach:” the meaninglessness of a mechanized external world and our attempts at real human connection within this oppressive order. For Gorillaz to express the plasticity of this world in conventional rap would be disingenuous, and their turn from this language toward a less human and electronic musicality represents a broader investment in a synthetic experience. Though there are moments where the transition is rough and incomplete, “Plastic Beach” represents a maturation for Gorillaz.
The conspicuous shortcomings of the album come on tracks that are limited by a rap vocabulary. “Sweepstakes,” which features Mos Def, contains the album’s only mention of stock hip-hop figures, as the rap star confidently spits, “There’s rappers and dealers and players and me / They say that they’re winners / Okay, well let’s see.” Not only are these rhymes depressingly conventional, but worse, they cast the beats in the background, thereby preventing the best aspect of “Plastic Beach” from shining through. This same problem is present on “White Flag,” in which banal rhymes ultimately dominate the fantastic opening of the Lebanese orchestra, who create an exotic and fast-paced rhythm through deep, resonating hand drums, a lighthearted flute, and a frenetic violin.
“Plastic Beach” shines brightest when its themes are more carefully unpacked. The most telling evocation of the theme of plasticity comes in “Some Kind of Nature.” Lou Reed is just the right man to feature in the song, his aloof monotone casually capturing the essence of the repetitive and opaque lyrics—“Some kind of mixture / Some kind of gold / Some kind of majesty / Some chemical load / Some kind of metal made up from glue / Some kind of plastic I could wrap around you.” While these lyrics present nothing in the way of narrative or even clear subject matter, the concepts of industrial fakeness and natural richness seem partially reconciled, as a “chemical load” is put on the same level as “gold” and “majesty.” The world only exists in “some kind” of things, indistinct and vague. Nonetheless, this unreality is finally comforting; “some kind of plastic” is depicted as a sort of blanket. We may be surrounded by the synthetic, but in the end this artificiality can be used as something real, even useful and protecting.
The following track, and arguably the album’s best song, “On Melancholy Hill,” provides a rare moment where a developed storyline expands on the album’s themes. Albarn is pitch-perfect in his contribution to a gentle, wistful synth line and light drumming, singing, “Up on melancholy hill / There’s a plastic tree / Are you here with me? / Just looking out on the day / Of another dream.” Reality does not exist in this world where nature is “plastic” and days are nothing more than “dreams.” What is tangible, however, is the meaning of human connection—“Well you can’t get what you want / But you can get me / So let’s set up and see / Cause you are my medicine / When you’re close to me,” Albarn touchingly trills. The instrumentals and vocals combine in the exact same sort of sad, removed charm. Though Albarn’s voice can become incomprehensible, it is the soft sound of his warble that ultimately matters most and perfectly blends into the beat of the song.
Indeed, the line between lyrics and music is blurred throughout “Plastic Beach.” In their departure from rap and its focus on language, in search of a new, more sonic form of musical expression, Gorillaz have made their music and lyrics blend to form what is often no more than raw sound. An appropriate decision—after all, what could speak the language of plastics and machines better than pure noise?
—Staff writer Alexander E. Traub can be reached at email@example.com.