On the making-of documentary included with the “Experience Edition” of Gorillaz’ latest album, Plastic Beach, band creator (and former Blur front man) Damon Albarn bemoans the state of the cohesive album in the age of iPods and Random Play. It’s a legitimate problem, and one that the first two Gorillaz albums tended to accommodate. Collections of relentlessly catchy singles alongside more esoteric pieces, neither Gorillaz’ self-titled debut nor their follow-up Demon Days ever really cohered as an album. You’d start one, get hung up on listening to “Feel Good Inc.” fourteen times in a row and then never make it too far past that. Plastic Beach is a completely different animal.
When we last left Murdoc, 2D, Russell, and Noodle, the not-as-young-as-she-used-to-be guitarist was plummeting to the ground after her Floating Windmill Island was shot down by black helicopters. Now, five years later, Noodle is presumed dead, at least for sure missing, and currently replaced by an Android that Murdoc has built from her DNA. He’s also kidnapped 2D and taken him to Plastic Beach and left Russell to his own devices, recording the entire new album without him.
Not your typical New Album Press Release, to be sure, but one of the best parts of any Gorillaz release is the expansion of the band’s surprisingly dense mythology. In this instance, that mythology dovetails perfectly into the thematics of the album. The titular Plastic Beach is a lump of garbage in the middle of the ocean, made from the refuse of every living person on the planet. And like its namesake, the album Plastic Beach is an amalgam of a very large number of different styles and musical voices. (And that’s got to be about 7,439th time someone has made that comparison in a review but, hey, it works.)
“Welcome To The World Of The Plastic Beach,” the album’s first genuine track, serves as the perfect introduction to where the album is headed, what it’s trying to do, and just how different an album this is going to be compared to Gorillaz’ previous ones. It starts off with a brief intro from Snoop Dogg (guest rapper, check). The electronic thud of the dub bassline and electro beat rolls beneath it, also check. The familiar synth wash carries it forward as well, all classic Gorillaz. Then, just shy of a minute in, everything changes. Keyboard-synthetic horns blast through the track, the click track of drums is matched with a live beat, and those horns morph into a melancholic but weirdly joyous melody. Before Snoop shows up again, 2D’s warbly vocals appear, almost tenuously auto-tuned; artificial but warm.
At that moment, the album tells us exactly what it’s going to be. The fifty or so minutes that follow carry the same fake/real aesthetic. Although mythologically, Russell has had nothing to do with the album, the drum performance of Gabriel Manuals Wallace is the literally beating heart that ties the album together, much like any Gorillaz fan might imagine Russell always did on previous tracks. Thematically, the album touches on these aspects of the modern world as well. The word “plastic” shows up in practically every song at some point. And though it features a tremendous amount of guest artists, it still feels more coherent than any other previous Gorillaz album. There’s no massive stand out like “Clint Eastwood” or “Feel Good Inc,” but the album is better off for it. I haven’t personally ever listened to any single part of the album on its own. It simply works so perfectly as a single entity. Albarn got his wish.
Without ever being too preachily “green,” Plastic Beach is very much about garbage and artificiality in its constant and pitched battle with authenticity. The album basically shows us that this kind of artificiality has become the new authenticity. There’s no escaping it.
We’re all happily marooned.