Gorillaz can’t be blamed for taking a long time to release a new record. Although it’s been seven years since 2010’s Plastic Beach — and that year’s followup iPad album, The Fall — it’s not like Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett have been sitting around tinkering with the Gorillaz. In the years since, Albarn got weird with Flea on Rocket Juice and the Moon, composed an opera, reunited and recorded with Blur, and even put out a solo album for himself. Meanwhile, Hewett got married, returned to Tank Girl, and opened a new art exhibition in London. Both parties were so busy that they didn’t begin working on Humanz until 2014, which is quite a short time given that they had to design a new band, write new music, and sort out the next chapter for virtual members 2D, Murdoc Niccals, Russel Hobbs, and Noodle. Still, for a band that exists solely through technology, there’s perhaps no better time than now for Gorillaz, which is why it’s so confounding that they sound more disconnected than ever.
Humanz pushes the digital aberrancy of their gag without breaking barriers, though had this been five years ago, gimmicks like a live Q&A with 2D and Murdoc may have seemed revolutionary. Instead, its album cycle — and, in turn, the album itself — is cushioned by the band’s decision to go big. They created a reality app, built pop-up “Spirit Houses”, and organized a Demon Dayz festival. Plus, there’s still a 10-episode TV series in the works. In other words, technology has finally allowed them to manipulate a band of pixels without its presentation limiting the specific time or place in which they can exist. Yet Albarn and Hewlett’s efforts feel diminished. By now, most of the western world is used to seeing 3D displays in person. Technology has surpassed its ability to surprise with everything from Japanese pop stars to hologram airport assistants. It could be said that people’s lack of surprise illustrates the very starkness Gorillaz predicted would blur sodden reality with technologic fantasy. How fitting, then, that Humanz’s introductory track begins like a self-aware warning before imploding pre-conceived expectations: “I switched my robot off/ And I know more/ But I retain less.” Right from its start, Humanz presents itself as a record overwhelmed by possibilities but unable to deliver them. Maybe that disconnect is intentional after all.
(Guide: Gorillaz in 10 Songs)
Gorillaz learned a lot in the seven-year gap between records; they just struggle to use that knowledge. According to Albarn, Humanz is equal parts a club record and a political response to the 2016 US presidential election. “When you go out that night, how do you feel?” he said. “This record was anticipating that night but trying to make a party out of it.” To the album’s benefit, it does represent today’s fluctuating party scene somewhat well. Political rallies calling for resistance and equality often slip into clubs with darkly comedic scheduling — for instance, it’s not unheard of to hear a song like “Alright” followed by “Side to Side”. So, when Humanz does the same, partnering “Let Me Out” (“Tell me I won’t die at the hands of the police/ Promise me I won’t outlive my nephew and my niece,” raps Pusha T) with “Carnival” (“I wanna spend the time with you/ Doing nothing,” sings Anthony Hamilton.), they cheapen the other’s gleam in a familiar way. For those used to that inconsistency, the dichotomy won’t be too jarring, but those anticipating musical uniformity will likely feel nauseous. It’s like a strobe light of songs that flash too quickly, one colorful theme overlapping with the next right when one you enjoy starts to settle in.
What the album lacks in proper sequencing, Gorillaz tries to solve with 20-second-or-less interludes that section off songs. These snippets of dialogue often suggest that the listener is riding up an elevator, poking their head onto different floors of a hotel to see what the party is like the higher up they go. Always self-aware, they include a particularly tongue-in-cheek interlude about resisting the desire to conform… via a repeat-after-me oath. Once the top of the building is reached, a deadpan huzzah plays out: “Out of the elephant’s trunk: confetti.” Is it a bit hackneyed? Sure. Does it preserve the dark comedy of Gorillaz’s personality? Absolutely. However, this mix offers a chance to listen to Gorillaz without getting too caught up in the overstressed mythology of its virtual members’ lives. Where they once sat at the center of a song, Gorillaz’ members now narrate your experience from a distance.
Despite all of this, Humanz manages to wax its own brand of charm over the course of its 20-song tracklist. The magic is in the collaborations. When creating Plastic Beach, Gorillaz admitted they could only operate so far as a two piece masquerading as four members, roping a slew of vocalists onboard for various songs. It worked. On Humanz, they dive head-first into that pool once again, getting everyone from Mavis Staples to Popcaan to contribute, and the only way for it to play out smoothly with such variety is to work that club angle. In fact, Albarn had initially asked each of the artists to react to a world in which Trump won the election, though he’s since edited out every Trump reference contributors made, turning what could have been a knee-deep political retaliation into another chapter that upholds Gorillaz’s digital obscurities. Though, by creating an album that rapidly shifts between genre, tempo, and vocalists, Gorillaz push their digital pop act forward without leaning too heavily on their respective disguises.
Recently, Albarn revealed that the majority of the guests on Humanz were chosen to impress his daughter — not exactly a fault, but not exactly the best guiding light, either — which likely explains why tracks such as “Saturnz Barz” and “Sex Murder Party” sound like trite party filler. The rest are a welcome burst of energy and crunchy beats on par with Demon Days’ samples. Vince Staples sprints across “Ascension”, De La Soul throws back to old-school Gorillaz on “Momentz”, and D.R.A.M. somehow doesn’t offset Albarn’s ego on the steady build of “Andromeda”. Humanz lets itself spin in circles, dancing to each song without trying to force connections between them. Sure, Grace Jones’ insidious laughter on “Charger” while industrial beats scratch behind her may seem out of place, but it’s one of Gorillaz’s best songs to date, pushing the dance playlist setup of the album into a decidedly disordered flash of color and sound. Because Albarn and Hewlett embrace the scattered nature of the record, their original angle — that this is a party taking place when logic no longer exists — works just fine.
Humanz is less about the Gorillaz of the past than it is about the people of the future. It’s as if by placing 2D, Murdoc, Russel, and Noodle on the album art, Albarn and Hewlett are trying to preserve those characters on an album that feels free of them. Humanz deviates from the Gorillaz persona they worked so hard to build. They’re good at cleverly disguised melancholia and that exists here if you look for it — the most obvious case being “Busted and Blue”, a slow-burning number about separating ourselves from technology and, coincidentally, the only track that features Albarn by himself. But if we focus on the cartoon characters now, are we wrongly overlooking the music? Artists who’ve built themselves up to be cartoons themselves, intentionally or not, wouldn’t argue against that. In the case of Gorillaz circa 2017, that just so happens to be true. It’s what allows us to watch while artists like Danny Brown and Kelela team up to create a bizarre, delightful, unexpected harmony on the album’s best track, “Submission”.
In the end, Humanz structures itself like we’re watching Gorillaz host a party in a trendy club, all while the world burns. By positioning its four digital members just outside of the line of vision, though, it feels like an outlier in the band’s catalog — which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. With a bit more focus, Humanz could have been an essential part of Gorillaz’s narrative. Instead, it’s a scatterbrained frenzy of emotion — which is what’s to be expected of anything immersing itself in the chaotic, logic-free nonsense of the world post-election.
Essential Tracks: “Submission (feat. Danny Brown & Kelela)”, “Andromeda (feat. D.R.A.M.)”, and “Charger (feat. Grace Jones)”