At the beginning of Gorillaz, the song that put them on the map, particularly in Europe, was “Clint Eastwood” featuring Del the Funky Homosapien, setting this precedent for the notion that the band was one that relied upon collaborations. Indeed, their other highest charting singles, “DARE” and “Feel Good Inc.,” also offered the vocals of Bootie Brown (and San Fernando Valley Youth Chorus) and De La Soul, respectively. And yet, somehow, the reliance upon other musicians to perfect their sound doesn’t come across as a reliance (read: weakness) so much as an almost old school testament to how music should be–lacking in the ego of worrying about someone else taking the focal point’s spotlight.
Humanz, the most daunting album Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett have ever undertaken (in technological synergy alone), is the fifth record from Gorillaz that fans almost didn’t think they could pry out of the band–which also sounds a lot like the story of Blur’s The Magic Whip. Indeed, after The Fall (yes, wording deliberately intended to remind you of Arthur Miller) in 2010, it seemed Gorillaz might go the way of Blur, or really all of Damon Albarn’s other “side projects” (The Good, The Bad and The Queen being the best example). Hewlett’s disgruntlement with his animation–a painstaking and time-consuming endeavor–taking a constant backseat to the overall crux of the band was, in part, what contributed to the hiatus. Mercifully, it was a drunk exchange at a party in 2014 that rekindled the fire, whereupon they coyly agreed to create another album.
And yes, since Gorillaz’s inception in 1998, the ease of producing the elaborate animation it takes to make Murdoc, 2D, Russel and Noodle come alive has improved–as evidenced by a recent interview the band was able to give on Radio 1. Looking back on the band’s evolution, and all that it’s pioneered in terms of incorporating elements of technology no one was willing to take on, it’s clear that Gorillaz has achieved more than just musical innovation, but what it will mean to “be a band” in the future. And it’s not necessarily going to signify being attached to any specific body–which would really change the game for ageism (at least for women) in the industry.
As for the motif of Humanz, billed as music you can dance to for the end of days, Albarn originally instructed collaborators like Pusha T to envision what the world would be like if Donald Trump actually won the presidency, which turned out, wasn’t that far of a stretch as the dark pall of November 2016 approached. This level of fear over the demise of the world as we know it into that dystopia Orwell so vehemently warned us about is evident on urgent tracks like “Ascension” featuring Vince Staples as he blurts out, “The sky’s fallin’ baby, drop that ass ‘fore it crash.” This overarching theme of partying amid chaos until it all comes to a gory halt is both a comfort and, at times, a source of melancholy. And yet, Humanz isn’t without its glimmers of hope for the future. In point of fact, “We Got The Power” is the closest the twenty-first century has come to re-creating John Lennon’s “Give Peace A Chance,” and proves just how serious Albarn is about his message of love being all-powerful in choosing to work with longtime former Britpop rival Noel Gallagher on it (though don’t think that means Liam approves).
The moodiest and most portentous song, “Hallelujah Money” (with an equally as grim video to match), is, even in its darkest moments, rife with emotional alleviation as Benjamin Clementine assures, “If this be the end, then so shall it be.” Elsewhere, Grace Jones’ contribution to “Charger” offers a far less “take it lying down” approach to the world’s end as she laughs and declares, “I am the ghost, I am the sword.” Basically, she could definitely outdo Charlize Theron if life came down to a Mad Max: Fury Road existence.
The album’s lead single “Saturnz Barz” featuring Popcaan remains one of its bright spots, and one now can’t help but think of that magical talking pizza in the video even as Albarn distracts you with his creepy warning, “I got debts, I’m a debaser.”
“Busted and Blue” offers faint tones of Sonic Youth’s cover of “Superstar” as a worn Albarn concernedly asks, “Where do they come from? The wires that connect to us?” Most notable not just for the burden it expresses over grappling with the internet’s overpowering influence, “Busted and Blue” is also the only song that features no one else, giving it a solo Damon/Blur circa 13 quality.
“Sex Murder Party” featuring Jamie Principle and Zebra Katz (who appears two other times on the bonus tracks “The Apprentice”–more Donald shade–and “Out of Body”) depicts the type of scenes one would expect of a post-apocalyptic dance party, or at least how Bret Easton Ellis would describe a gathering in L.A., regardless of what era. “She’s My Collar” is possibly the only taste we get of Gorillaz’s take on twenty-first century relationships, alluding to a collar that potentially symbolizes dating apps as Albarn states, “Nothing to be justified in just one thing, you should feel nada/I know she lies, I know she’s my caller/I sense her in my mind, she’s my collar.” The collar, of course, represents more than just a woman and monogamy (psh), but the use of the apps that “help” to “procure” them. But who are we kidding?–there are too many collar allegories in the present epoch. It could be about so many different ones, government included. And when Gorillaz finally release you from the collar of listening, you only want to put it back on.
The robust length of the album somehow goes by quickly, even with them bonus tracks topping it out at twenty-six songs in total. Because, even though there’s less cohesion (in large part due to there being so many collaborations) on Humanz than there has been on past Gorillaz records, the piercing combination of acceptance of and fighting back against a new world order feels as though it’s been a war that’s been going on inside of us all along, one that we live every day, and that Humanz perfectly punctuates.