Gorillaz: “Plastic Beach”
Damon Albarn makes brilliant pop music, but only when he isn’t left to his own devices. For a time, he had Graham Coxon as his voice of reason and his creative foil, holding his feet to the ground no matter how big his helium-inflated ambitions grew. Then Coxon left, and Albarn ever-so-briefly floundered. It turns out, though, that anchoring his right-brained flights of fancy to a guiding concept worked just as well as tying them to Coxon, even if that means dressing up his music as the creation of a cartoon character or building it up as a high-and-lofty multimedia project when, at its heart, it’s still nothing more or less than brilliant pop music. If you’ve followed him for this long, you know what to do: Forget the concept, and simply accept it as Albarn’s tool for keeping his muse within the realm of comprehension.
So yes: Albarn’s third album as the ringleader of the Gorillaz is a concept album about the environment. Yes, it’s a sort of near-future dystopian nightmare inspired by his observations about different landfill practices in industrialized nations. And yes, Gorillaz is still a cartoon band. Here’s what matters: Plastic Beach is a deliriously vibrant pop album. And as cartoon environmentalism goes, it’s a lot more Wall*E than Captain Planet.
But actually, it’s reminiscent of nothing more than Albarn’s first real Blur masterpiece, the era-defining Parklife. Like that album, this one is a series of scenes and sketches that work as meticulously-detailed character pieces but add up to a mosaic of the culture at large, and the brilliance of Plastic Beach is wrapped up in both how it builds on Parklife‘s blueprint and departs from it.
The biggest difference, of course, is that Albarn is no longer fronting a rock band; Demon Days made it clear that Gorillaz is not a band so much as a revolving-door cast of collaborators uniting under the banner of Albarn’s mad vision, a concept on which the man can hang his hat and disappear behind, indulging the kinds of out-there stuff he couldn’t do as Britpop’s poster boy. As it turns out, though, Plastic Beach is not only the most jam-packed Gorillaz record yet– not just in terms of bright colors and killer hooks, but also in terms of the guest roster, a genuinely staggering assortment of left-field talent– but it’s also, well, the least out-there, eco-fable or not: Rooted though it may be in the usual Gorillaz milieu of hip-hop, dub, and analog disco, this is the most pop album Albarn has made since Parklife, albeit a trippy and sprawling pop album.
It might also qualify as the most fun album he’s made since then; the ominous shadow that fell over Demon Days is present, but here Albarn addresses his global concerns as much through absurdist humor and goofball wit than he does through scouring the darkness. The album is neither as romantic as Parklife‘s cheerful celebration of lad culture, nor as gloomy as Albarn’s disillusioned update on that same culture in The Good, The Bad and the Queen; the problem on Plastic Beach is not one of fading British ideals but of a world gone mad with self-destructive waste, and Albarn addresses it in precisely this way– as a global problem, which doesn’t just underscore the urgency but also brings a curious spirit of optimism and goodwill. It’s as if Albarn believes that since this is a universal problem, our means for combatting it are similarly vast, and, fittingly, Plastic Beach is a Technicolor stew of cultures and ideas, one in which a UK garage banger is wrapped up in Middle Eastern orchestration (“White Flag”) and a Lebanese symphony sounds perfectly natural backing Snoop Dogg (“Welcome to the World of the Plastic Beach”).
The wit here is still very British, of course, and given that this is Albarn, it’s also very smart. At times it’s as steeped in British tradition and rock and roll in-jokes as Parklife— ranging from Snoop’s off-the-cuff Gil Scott-Heron reference to Albarn’s “Superfast Jellyfish,” a mock radio jingle that plays as a nod to The Who Sell Out, as does the record’s general pirate radio motif– but the album is a little trickier than either the character mosaic of Parklife or the more general post-9/11 dread of Demon Days. As a concept piece about the perils of consumerism gone mad and rampant, unchecked waste, the tracks here don’t gel into a singular statement so much as they display a jumble of ideas and perspectives on a similar topic, but if the album is sometimes wont to apocalyptic prophesying, it’s more often informed by cheerful good humor, whether it’s Mos Def‘s escalating absurdism in “Sweepstakes” or the jet-black satire of “Superfast Jellyfish.”
Under the humor, though, the record’s heart is restless: There’s a search for answers here that the album never claims to deliver, be it in Lou Reed’s cantankerous beach-combing in “Some Kind of Nature” or the post-apocalyptic rebuilding of civilization in “White Flag.” Indeed, there’s an unease here that suggests Albarn isn’t quite sure if this problem can ever be fixed, but the sheer existence of an album like Plastic Beach offers reason for optimism: After all, if Albarn can look to the world around him and the cultures surrounding him and draw inspiration for an album as deliriously overstuffed and endlessly enjoyable as this one, then at the very least he’s reminded us all that there’s still something out there worth fighting for.