Album Review: Gorillaz – “Plastic Beach”
Plastic Beach – it’s the new compound for the cartoon characters which make up Gorillaz (and what you see on the album cover). According to a press release, it’s “made up of the detritus, debris and washed up remnants of humanity. This Plastic Beach is the furthest point from any landmass on Earth; the most deserted spot on the planet.”
And that’s an absolutely fitting place for this group of misfits to take up residence since Gorillaz make some of the most genre-melting and unique pop music you’ll hear. They don’t fit in anywhere but on their own unnatural island somewhere in the middle of the ocean.
It’s just too bad that the album starts off like its inspiration, and by that I mean a big pile of garbage.
Plastic Beach starts off harmlessly enough with a minute-long and rather unnecessary orchestral intro before segueing into the second track which is basically another intro track, only this time we get to hear Snoop Dogg phoning in some of the laziest rhymes he’s done as he welcomes everyone to the fictional island. With track three, “White Flag,” we finally get a real song. Unfortunately, it’s downright annoying and easily the worst song on the album. It features two British rappers, Bashy and Kano, who sound like two amateur freestylers struggling to come up with something clever to say over a lousy beat.
That’s over eight minutes of at best useless and at worst annoying music to start off the record. When you dig a hole that deep, it’s damn near impossible to get out. But Damon Albarn finally shows up on track four, and all is well with the world again.
It’s clear that Gorillaz are a much better group when Albarn’s vocals are present, whether they’re leading the way (“Rhinestone Eyes”) or just accenting a guest (“Superfast Jellyfish”). When the group essentially becomes little more than a production crew for guest rappers, the quality noticeably drops. I think that’s because Albarn’s ghostly, near-comatose voice creates a perfect juxtaposition of melancholy versus the bouncy, spaced-out synths.
With Albarn finally in the fold vocally, the music really hits its stride. “Stylo” immediately locks into a funky, authoritative beat with Mos Def and Albarn trading verses until R&B and soul legend Bobby Womack erupts like a preacher reaching for the rafters. De La Soul keep the tempo high on “Superfast Jellyfish” which bemoans the way our hectic schedules and freezer-based technologies have turned home-cooked breakfast into three-minute microwave meals – and we’re too oblivious to know the difference, or care.
And that apathy towards the consequences of our decisions is the bedrock for much of the thematic elements of the record. We hear about “radioactive seas,” “chemical loads,” and “Styrofoam deep sea landfills.” The Gorillaz crew has taken notice of our disposable culture, but instead of adding to the heap of trash, they’ve made it their home. Plastic and synthetic waste is a recurring idea in many of these songs, perfectly encapsulated in Lou Reed’s hilariously genius delivery of the line, “Well me, I like plastics and digital foils.” He sounds like a drug-addled, spaced-out shop teacher who inhaled a few too many burning plastics fumes.
It’s not all environment all the time though. There are some sweetly sad love songs on here too. “On Melancholy Hill” is a wistful dream that a girl might settle for you – “where you can’t get what you want/but you can get me.”
Plastic Beach lacks a lot of the infectious dance grooves that permeated their last album, the classic Demon Days, and it’s a little too bloated for its own good. But when it hits its stride, it really doesn’t look back. You’ll have fun listening to the music and then you’ll be frightened when you realize the Plastic Beach is more real than just a cartoon fantasy.