Among musicians, and music fans, pop music sometimes gets a bit of a bad rap. Personally, I’ve found the world of pop music across the decades to be a fascinating and enjoyable one. While I zoned out of the pop world for years, I could always rely on Gorillaz to fill that hole. From Clint Eastwood to Plastic Beach (The Fall doesn’t really count), Gorillaz have been a surefire hit-factory. Unfortunately, whenever they would come out with a fresh batch, they’d inevitably bugger back off again for a handful of years.
Everyone knows that Gorillaz are, in fact, a cipher for Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett. Over the years, they’ve been able to rope in talented collaborators from every corner of musical culture. With their latest release, Humanz, that approach has come to define them more than ever before. With a huge track list, bonus songs to boot and some new friends in tow, has this transcendent and unique project come out with yet another pop monolith for our times?
Unlike much good pop, but in common with the very best, Humanz isn’t easily digestible. That’s not to say that it’s overwhelmingly challenging. Much of it is instantly enjoyable, or at least interesting. It merely takes two or three dedicated listens before its statements and grooves can fully get their hooks in. Even though, eventually, they do, much of the album is surprisingly restrained. This is true of their first, self-titled, release too. It becomes more of a dark collage than Demon Days or Plastic Beach, both of which were fairly direct in their playful colour.
Ascension is the perfect opening track to lay those intentions on the table. Of course, we have to stumble over the obligatory atmospheric intro track but, at a mere twenty-four seconds long, we can forgive that. The beats are well-produced and carefully laid out, the surrounding construction showing a depth of texture that you’d expect from Gorillaz. Ascension gets in and gets out like a sucker punch. Leading directly into Strobelite, one of the poppier tracks on the record, this is about as bubbly as things get. It’s a great song to display the nostalgic hints that pervade Humanz. It’s something that Gorillaz do very well, bringing older sounds and motifs into fresher settings. The melding of the two can be, at times, inspired.
Except Strobelite, and the admittedly annoying Momentz, Humanz is a dark tour through a frightening and alienating landscape. It’s absolutely a political album in its themes and inspiration. However, it takes a creative approach to expressing that. Instead of leaning back on Trump references, or making bleak warnings, it reacts passionately to current events. Perhaps true creativity is the best response to all this. It makes direct referencing seem retrograde. That is one of the key strengths of Humanz. In tandem with that is the quality of much of its music.
The finest of its material (Charger. Andromeda, Let Me Out) feels, in many ways, like an evolved Gorillaz. They can effectively convey the myriad sounds of their previous work. To help their impressive realisations, there’s a lot of teeth behind them that was rarely there in the past. Gorillaz, if we’re honest, were always a rather upbeat beast. Indeed, following their debut, such was the aesthetic of pop at the time. It does feel like we’re in a time of change, and that’s something you can feel throughout Humanz.
Where it falls down is where Gorillaz always fall down. Each of their albums has a fatigue that sets in by its final third. Out of the gate, the material is strong and engaging. As things move on, certain tracks start to sound like filler. Sex Murder Party and She’s My Collar sum that up. Both of them are far from bad, but they just feel flat in the wake of cleverer material like Carnival. I also couldn’t help but expect more from We Got the Power, a weak song that sees Albarn collaborating with Noel Gallagher for the first time. It’s also easy to see why the bonus tracks were relegated to add-on purgatory. They’re all rewarding to hear but, if you listen to the deluxe version of Humanz, they can only encourage a fatigue with it all.
The positives of this record do outweigh its negatives, as is true of every Gorillaz release to date. It has a real snarl that’s refreshing to hear in this project. It sounds, to me, that Gorillaz have taken a step forward with a hand firmly grasped at their preceding legacy. The collaborators on display help to give Humanz a wide palette, even if they’re more shadowed hues. I’m even willing to accept that I’ve been harsh on the latter parts of the album, which could easily grow on me. With this latest release, Gorillaz prove again why they’re worth tuning in to every time they show their animated faces. It may be their most coherent release to date, but who really cares about all that when pop can still be this innovative?