Gorillaz: Humanz review – Albarn pulls his punches

Gorillaz’s on-trend party album brings reassuring strangeness and a clever use of collaborators, but little real-world clout

“The sky is falling baby/ Drop that ass ’fore it crash,” chants Vince Staples on the nagging Ascension, the first song on Gorillaz’s soundtrack for a party at the end of the world. Billed as a nonstop, 125bpm-and-over playlist, the return of Gorillaz after seven years largely delivers on the promise of a rolling vibe – one with a scream emoji hovering just in the wings.

Front and centre, fun is available; “millennialz” are definitely invited to this nearly 20-year-old project. Damon Albarn, Jamie Hewlett and a huge cast of well-chosen guests layer on-trend pop tropes over myriad iterations of danceable music, through choices that are always just a touch left-of-field. Lead single Saturnz Barz is a haunted house of trip-hop, featuring paranoid verses courtesy of feted young Jamaican MC Popcaan.

The best tracks can often be those that seem most unlikely, where pairings take flight and logic takes a breather. The inspired Charger is excellent twaddle: a cackling Grace Jones, ad-libbing over a wriggly heavy metal synth riff. Albarn’s half-rapped vocal doesn’t really cleave to sense either, but stitches Jones’s pronouncements together with panache: “cha, cha, cha” he sings. Deeper into the album is the electrifying comedown of the previously released Hallelujah Money, in which chansonnier Benjamin Clementine is allowed almost entirely free rein as sonar bloops and choirs mass beneath him.

Reality bites, mostly at the edges of this less than focused album of hip-hop collaborations; the sense of a handcart careering towards a fiery end is never all that far away. “Hated us since the days of Moses/ Let my people go crazy,” Staples raps on Ascension. An atmosphere of subtle dislocation keeps the dancefloor uneasy; this is a party, but Damon Albarn hasn’t suddenly turned into Bruno Mars. If you’ve listened to enough of his projects, you can hear Albarn’s bittersweet thumbprint throughout, even when guest producers like the Twilite Tone take the reins. Sometimes Albarn is loud and proud, as on Andromeda, a pacey boom-tish of a pop tune; sometimes he is merely a vibe.

Watch an interview with 2D and Murdoc of Gorillaz.

Apparently, he consciously edited out any over-references to Donald Trump’s presidency as the album went along. A big one is audibly bleeped on Let Me Out, the album’s most overtly political track, a standout meeting of minds between Mavis Staples and Pusha T. You wonder at some of these choices, when even Beyoncé can make a political concept album; Gorillaz might have punched a little harder into the dystopian present. Moreover, you wonder why the closing song – We Got the Power – is such a half-baked letdown.

As ever, though, the achievement of this album lies in Albarn marshalling an array of talents, and hauling the mainstream to a stranger place for a little while.


Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

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