Gorillaz - Humanz
Tyler: I’ll be up front - I love Gorillaz. I remember, as an awkward middle-schooler that had few greater desires than to crawl inside his own body and scream, Demon Days served as one of the first modern pieces of music that left an impression on me. It was the first time I became curious about musical conventions and how they could be warped. And, of course, I was drawn to the aesthetic of the music videos. Gorillaz built a wacky, immersive universe that I wished to escape into while my real world continued to disorient. It also instilled in me a desire to find more music like it. I guess nothing says gateway drug like a cartoon band.
Oddly enough, I believe those albums actually hold up – especially Plastic Beach, which is so unabashedly concept driven and knowingly corny that it manages to sidestep the accidental baggage associated with trends of the time. Gorillaz does not abide by trends. They are certainly cool to the extent that each character has an edge about them, but their individuality is what makes them pop. Sure, previous albums contain some not-so-subtle nods to the political climate of our real world, balancing playful grit in two dimensions with commentary, but it is their cohesive, tightly wrapped spunk that make them the best-case scenario novelty act.
Andrew: Meanwhile, I knew very little about Gorillaz. Sure, I know Damon Albarn as a construct. I enjoyed aspects of his 2014 solo release Everyday Robots, cringed when Blur picked on Nardwuar as part of the Britpop illuminati, and inherited the passing knowledge we all seemed to receive by virtue of pure earworms like “Feel Good Inc.”
For me, though, Gorillaz always held a more distant and perplexing appeal. There are a handful of burned albums from artists like The Postal Service or Barbara Morgenstern that I can remember my father playing in our Philadelphia basement on purple CD-Rs during the mid-2000s. Demon Days was, of course, also there. In 2005, hip-hop was another planet to me. It was 50 Cent on the school bus and my father’s subtly mocking imitations of Kanye skits on The College Dropout. I didn’t know who De La Soul was, let alone DOOM. That confusion kept me from the album, just as it did with 2010’s Plastic Beach, which I realized retroactively I would have loved. But here we are in 2017 with a new Gorillaz album. And here I am with an opportunity to understand what he saw in them.
T: With Gorillaz’ release of Humanz, an album intended to capture “the party for the end of the world”, the cartoon band has opted for a more disconnected, mixtape-like album structure. And so Andrew and I decided to discuss Humanz track-by-track, gauntlet style:
1. Intro: I Switched My Robot Off
T: Unfortunately, these interludes don’t seem to add anything to the album. They don’t connect ideas or really engage you at all. It seems as though they were implemented to give the impression that the album is more cohesive than it actually ends up being. I know I’m off and we’re 20 seconds in – but this ends up speaking to a larger issue with Humanz that the Gorillaz project has never really had before…minus the debut.
A: Agreed. The worst part is that you THINK they mean something initially (new technology, Trump stuff, etc.), but really, the farther you get into the album the less sense they make.
T: This song exists for the final verse by Vince Staples who, overall, delivers. Still, it is a weird choice for an opening track. It captures the “apocalypse party” concept Albarn was striving for, but it also introduces the issue of songs that plateau after their first 20-30 seconds.
A: Agreed, again, at least for the most part. Vince Staples sounds good here, although as the sole star (minus that weird part where Albarn interjects, and adds nothing to this song that’s mostly about race / police brutality in America…) it really is about that turn-up energy in the last verse. Also the chorus gets rather repetitive since it’s blared non-stop.
T: Kind of Random Access Memories Daft Punk vibes here in the revivalist disco beat and melody. But again, we get the full picture so early. Peven delivers, while Albarn - I mean 2-D - comes in and you sneeze and forget he was on the track.
A: This is where I started to get a little anxious. Sure, this is dance-y and passable, but already I had a really hard time making the connections with what this has to do with the dance-apocalypse concept. There’s that “are we just too far” line, I suppose, but the thru-line feels very abstract and forgettable. Plus, it drags a bit at the end even without Albarn’s contribution. So far he sounds very out of synch with his contributors.
4. Saturnz Barz
T: I really like this beat and Albarn and Popcaan complement each other, which is great.
A: Musically, I have to agree that this is pretty solid. Popcaan is doing his thing, which isn’t particularly moving to me, but he’s also talking about everything except the “topic”. Unruly Gang, his chart success, all the shit he wants to buy (bikes??). This really feels like a cut and paste feature, and furthers the disconnect between Albarn and his guests.
T: I really enjoy this song and would go as far to say it’s one of my favorites on the album. Like “Feel Good Inc.” and “Superfast Jellyfish”, De La Soul provide this really playful, off-the-wall energy. Undeniably, there is character here that situates you in Gorillaz’ weirdo melancholy in a way much of the album doesn’t.
A: I’ve gone back and forth with this one, but yeah, I think I would agree that this is one of the stronger tracks. The high-point is really the energy on this one. It’s very catchy and actually feels like it could outlive the cultural moment or trends suggested by the context around this album. I see what you mean about “Superfast Jellyfish”, too. It has that goofy, absurdist tone to it. If anything, I just wish this one was a bit longer. They do the playful chorus and then say “MOMENTZ” about 90 times before the Kool Klown Klan thing… lolwut.
T: What do you think of when you combine the concepts of “clown” and “white supremacist”?
A: Ben Mendelsohn’s role in The Dark Knight Rises, obviously.
T: Okay, I like this song, but how do you put Danny Brown on a Gorillaz album and mess it up like this? Danny Brown is the type of personality that should so perfectly mesh with the Gorillaz universe, and yet he’s matched so poorly with the song and kind of sails though it without adding anything. So confusing and disappointing.
A: Conversely, I really enjoyed this track. From my first listen, I dug Kelela’s vocals and think they’re some of the most instantly catchy on the album. That said, the Danny verse is definitely on the lazy side. There are even lyrics on “The Return” from Old that are pretty similar to this song. This is the trad-Danny topic material of sin / how to cope / excess, and it pretty naturally fits with Albarn’s theme, but he’s virtually absent from this one minus 2-D harmonizing with Kelela for about 5 seconds on the chorus. Whatever that means…
T: Grace Jones and Albarn kill it here. They each contribute to the track in radically different ways that serve as perfect foils to one another. Sure, the song sort of plods along in a way that doesn’t allow it to stand out structurally, but I’d say its one of the better tracks here.
A: I’ll agree that this one has some nice moments. I enjoyed the mechanical backing accompaniment and the “Cha-cha-charger” bits. Other than that, though, this song is twice as long as it needs to be. Grace Jones feels like she’s just doing her own thing and Albarn is also there. Sensing a theme here?
T: The first few times I listened to this song I didn’t even notice D.R.A.M.’s appearance, which is, like Danny Brown’s role, incredibly frustrating given how their voice should be perfectly at home in Albarn’s take on psychedelia. Not that it is a terrible feature, just a strangely undercutting one.
A: Musically, this one is very pleasant. I like the beat once it kicks in, and the emphasis on space, generally. But D.R.A.M.’s role is so confusing here. Apparently this has something to do with Bobby Womack? How would anyone ever know?? This thing is so obtuse.
11. Busted and Blue
T: I am so bored by this nondescript track that sort of farts along for its duration. I can’t shake the feeling that Albarn was sitting there like, “Okay, we need something to serve as the forlorn break from the intensity of previous tracks – here!” Thing is, we can hear it when you phone a track in to aid an album’s structure. It’s also the only track featuring just Albarn on vocals, which makes it especially disappointing. But Andrew, I know when we spoke about this the other day that you were digging the track. Help me out here…and then listen to “Up On Melancholy Hill”.
A: Honestly, it feels like a continuation of the work in “Andromeda”, but doesn’t expand on it much. Computers, Virgil, more satellites (SPACE). Albarn just has such a way with that charming London accent he slaps on whenever the lyrics don’t really make 100% sense. You’re correct that it doesn’t really develop, and there’s NO REASON for this to be 5 minutes. Getting very strong Everyday Robots vibes here. And “Up On Melancholy Hill” is still a gem, btw.
T: This is okay, but it doesn’t go anywhere after the first verse and chorus. I’m waiting for the build to result in something, but it just ends. The vocals are epic, but when you don’t give them anywhere to go they lose their strength.
A: Agreed. Vocals are powerful here, but don’t develop into much. Makes the lyrics feel super inconsequential. This does seem to be on-track for the theme, tho.
14. Let Me Out
T: First off, what an excellent chorus. Sure, I wish they swung even harder for the horror movie tone set by that piano and whispered, creepy vocals, but it develops in a compelling way.
A: Definitely a banger. This is one of the few tracks that I can actually see people listening to outside of the context of this album. It’s not surprising that the ones which have clicked most naturally so far seem to have really compelling hip-hop verses on them, either. Really hits the Gorillaz tone, too. Pusha T really shows up on this one, although as per usual it unravels by the end.
16. Sex Murder Party
T: This is the worst track on the album. As someone who has really loved the ambition of previous albums, its laziness is nearly offensive. I already felt down about this album listening through it the first time, and then this song happened and I’m pretty sure I actually got angry.
A: Yeah, this shit is straight-up egregious. There must have been a healthy dose of tranquilizers present, because everybody slept through this one. It’s a trashy chorus, a lazy link to the “theme” and is generally pretty distasteful.
17. She’s My Collar
T: I really dig this track’s groove and appreciate that it digs us out of the black hole created by Sex Murder Farty. The vocals across the track are solid as well.
A: It definitely doesn’t feel related to the “theme”, whatever that means at this point, but I like the way it develops halfway through with Kali Uchis. This has a swinging tempo and Albarn’s smooooth London vocals do what they’re supposed to do.
19. Hallelujah Money
T: Maybe my favorite track on the album. I know that it is an incredibly awkward one that just hardly locks into its groove, but it fits into the Gorillaz universe and the lyrics embody exactly what I believe Albarn was trying to do here! It also stands as a powerful anomaly to the rest of the album in songwriting, performance, and build. It has a bit of a “fuck you” ending, which I actually appreciate. Makes me wish, so badly, that the album just ended there.
A: An enigmatic one for sure, since you have to get past the super bizarre vocal style to really “get” it. This feels like a more cohesively thematic statement regarding the album and our current political climate. I wrote this off on first listen, in part because the album is just exhausting at this point, but it’s actually one of the more nuanced tracks.
20. We Got the Power
T: But no, you just had to take us through this parade at the end. I get it, it’s a bad idea to end what is attempting to be an overtly political album called Humanz on a trollish-note, but this didn’t have to be the direction we went in. The chorus is the sound of vague, commodified, Instagram-ready protest. It’s a t-shirt. It’s that fucking Pepsi advertisement. It doesn’t get it at all.
A: Yeah. This shit is a Power Rangers / Care Bears theme song, and highlights the weird, vaguely commercial undertones to the “virtual band” concept. We’re done here.
A: This album is an unabashed mess. And maybe that’s a reflection of our current political state, or geo-politics, but it’s also a telling statement about the way collaboration works in 2017. There were moments on this album that reminded me very strongly of my father’s initial reaction to Kanye, a mix of respect, envy, and a sort of affected sneer that showed he couldn’t engage with it without some sense of irony. Albarn, who never really acknowledges or grapples with his outsider status while supposedly commenting on American politics, is often absent on this album. And without liners notes you can rarely tell it’s supposed to be 2-D, or the significance of that distinction. I was hoping to get a glimpse here of what made Demon Days so special, but it instead seems Albarn was conflating loose ideas about Trump’s America with the experiences of a wide cast of performers of color. At worst, his contributions to songs like “Ascension” or “Let Me Out” detract from the engaging, politically relevant discourse of his collaborators. Moreover, Albarn never engages the tension presented by his role as the white, British vanguard behind the console. It’s a missed opportunity, and Gorillaz misfired on this one by forgetting the most important part – the band – and slapping on a half-baked concept that ends up insulting the very performers it is supposedly extending a platform.
T: While I’ve reckoned with the fact that I don’t enjoy this album as an overall statement, I suppose I am happy that it exists. It’s pretty amazing that what started as a novelty project would somehow manage to live on for nearly two decades. Also, there are a few notable bangers here: “Momentz”, “Hallelujah Money”, “Let Me Out”, “She’s My Collar”, and “Charger”. Unsurprisingly, these tracks stood out the most to me because they seemed to click into the sonic and visual universe created around the Gorillaz years ago. Unfortunately, too many other tracks showed their hand too early or, most consistently, mishandled or miscast collaborators. Still, I hope that Gorillaz continue to cultivate their strange artistic space in our culture, one allowing us an escape from our current reality while simultaneously reflecting it.