I was a huge, huge fan of the first two Gorillaz albums. Like the Clash before him, Damon Albarn (Gorillaz’ musical mastermind, with artist Jamie Hewlett being the visual architect) found a way forward from a stagnant era of rock’n’roll by grafting in bits of all kinds of disparate styles, from hip-hop to Latin and African music to techno. Gorillaz and Demon Days were two of the best products of the first decade of this century, for my money, and with that in mind it’s hard not to call Plastic Beach something of a disappointment. It just doesn’t work the way its predecessors did, for reasons that are hard to pin down.
There is talent and ambition to burn here, no doubt. After working with superstar producers on the first two records (Dan the Automator on Gorillaz, Danger Mouse on Demon Days), Albarn takes the helm himself on Plastic Beach and assembles a formidable roster of contributors: Mick Jones and Paul Simonon of the Clash; Bobby Womack; Mos Def, Snoop Dogg, and De La Soul; Mark E. Smith makes a welcome appearance on one song and even Lou Reed rose from his crypt to croak the words to another.
But as is so often the case with star-studded projects, the whole is less than the sum of its parts. This is clearly meant to be a concept album, and I feel like it’s reaching for some kind of Big Statement about the environment and the future of the Earth, but it’s all so elliptical that no coherent message emerges. Unless the message is “We’re fucked,” which could more elegantly have been delivered as a single. (Calling Cee Lo Green.)
Plastic Beach feels overbaked an album, but is much more successful as a series of isolated moments. “Superfast Jellyfish” and “Pirate Jet” are catchy, dubby little earworms; there are passages of quiet loveliness in “Empire Ants,” “On Melancholy Hill,” and “Cloud of Unknowing”; and the combination of Reed and Albarn’s voices on “Some Kind of Nature” works better than anyone had a right to expect it to. In fact I would call that one song something of a miracle…so let’s accentuate the positive: