Gorillaz: The Fall - review

Gorillaz' latest is a low-key set made on an iPad on tour. It has a few great flashes, reckons Alexis Petridis

There was something a little odd about the fanfare accompanying the arrival of Gorillaz's fourth album: there wasn't any. No big interviews with Damon Albarn; no launch; none of those awful collapse-of-the-will-to-live-inducing features in which a luckless journalist has to pretend he's been kidnapped by the cartoon characters that ostensibly make up the band; not even the element of surprise that greeted Radiohead's King of Limbs. It just slipped out: first as a fan-club only download, then as a limited vinyl-only souvenir to be released on Saturday for Record Store Day, followed by the CD on Monday. For a man who's based his career on grand gestures – from the Blur and Oasis Britpop "war" to writing an opera in Mandarin to the last Gorillaz album, Plastic Beach, with its star-studded cameos and references to 14th-century guides to contemplative prayer – it seemed oddly out of character.

Perhaps it fits The Fall's understated genesis. It was recorded almost entirely on an iPad during Gorillaz's US tour last year. Perhaps it isn't supposed to be seen as a proper album – like 2003's Democrazy, a limited-edition collection of rough sketches recorded during Blur's last US tour. But those songs were clearly not finished, and the 14 tracks on The Fall clearly are. Democrazy featured a track consisting entirely of Albarn listlessly twanging a two-note guitar riff over a primitive drum machine. The Fall climaxes with an astonishing guest appearance from Bobby Womack, on Bobby in Phoenix, a prosaic title that doesn't really prepare you for its lovely conjunction of bluesy acoustic guitar, electronic tones, scampering samples of Oriental strings and Womack's weathered voice.

Or perhaps Albarn has had enough of grand gestures, following the presumably dispiriting experience of trying to encourage a singalong among a dwindling Glastonbury crowd, some of whom had already been distracted from Gorillaz's elaborate conceptual son et lumière by the more straightforward pleasure of watching an audience member climb atop a wooden pergola stage left and then repeatedly expose his genitals. The singalong was to a track they didn't appear to know, but which, judging by their reaction, might as well have been called You Know the Flaming Lips Are on the Other Stage? He was back to triumphing again on the subsequent tour, but ended it saying it was an experience whose epic scale was impossible to top.

And yet, low-key release or not, old habits die hard. Previous Gorillaz albums have thrived on a showily unfettered no-expense-spared inventiveness that allowed listeners to marvel at Albarn's ability to juxtapose unlikely musical styles and his capacity to get legendary figures to do his bidding. But you could argue there's something equally showy about releasing an album made almost entirely on an iPad, with no songs apparently prepared in advance: see how my genius flourishes under deliberately restrictive circumstances! The accurate response would be: intermittently. There are moments when The Fall sounds exactly like someone mucking about with an iPad in a hotel room. Certain bits of musical abstraction work – the montage of voices, distorted vocals and fractured electronic on California and the Slipping of the Sun captures the disorientation of travel – but Little Pink Plastic Bags and HillBilly Man sound less like songs than afterthoughts, melodies and words tacked on to a pleasant few hours exploring technology's possibilities. Not all the instrumentals are boring – notably the gorgeous, drifting Shy-town – but listening to the so-what bleeping of Phoner to Arizona and Aspen Forest, you do rather marvel at the brass cojones of someone putting this stuff out, even quietly: clearly Glastonbury wasn't quite the spirit-crushing experience that it looked, upstaged by a drunk with his old chap out or not.

Occasionally, The Fall reminds you what Albarn's vaulting self-belief is based on: moments where the no-prior-preparation method behind the album works, where you can hear a flash of early-hours inspiration pan out into a great song. The Joplin Spider sets his voice against a barrage of surprisingly fierce computerised noise. Amarillo offers a gorgeous, stately chord progression, Albarn's weary vocal weaving around steely synthesisers. The Parish of Space Dust shifts from the sonic cliche of snatches of familiar songs peering out from the sound of someone tuning a radio into one of Albarn's trademark melodies, languid and suffused with melancholy, pressed into the service of an improbable lyric about the beauty of Texas, over an ungainly waltz beat.

It shouldn't work, but ultimately it does, which is pretty much The Fall all over. If, as rumours suggest, that's it for Gorillaz, it's certainly a slightly odd way to end things. It's a patchy and tangential album on which its author's greatness flickers intermittently rather than shines. That said, there's definitely greatness there: enough to make you fascinated as to what Albarn will do next, grand gesture or otherwise.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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