Documentaries, B-sides compilations, opera scores, and remixes aside, sometime Blur frontman Damon Albarn’s current flagship Gorillaz hasn’t released new music in ages. If there’s anything to be learned from the last decade of Albarn’s professional recording career, though, it’s that nary a second goes to waste. It becomes clear early on during Plastic Beach, the third album from Gorillaz, Albarn’s multimedia project with artist Jamie Hewlett and a veritable phalanx of in-demand producers, session musicians and collaborators, that the time that has elapsed between Plastic Beach and 2005’s Demon Days has been spent globetrotting and absorbing new influences. Plastic Beach takes the group’s trademark dance-pop sound and wraps it around the world, ensnaring a diverse cast of characters for an album filled to the brim with disparate but vibrant ideas. At times it feels like the underlying thesis of Plastic Beach is to foster as many unlikely musical pairings as possible.
The album, then, has made for some strange bedfellows. Lead single “Stylo” pairs rapper Mos Def with legendary soul shouter Bobby Womack over robotic, Moroder-esque proto-disco. Elsewhere, U.K. grime darlings Bashy and Kano meet the Lebanese National Orchestra for Oriental Arabic Music on “White Flag,” which Ping-Pongs back and forth between lush Arabic music and glitchy 8-bit calypso. Opener “Welcome to the World of the Plastic Beach” teams Snoop Dogg and his blunt-damaged, off-time delivery with the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble for a slab of woozy, futuristic electro-funk. Snoop hasn’t sounded this genuinely kooky in years. The Hypnotic Brass Ensemble returns later on for “Sweepstakes,” a busy polyrhythmic waltz that employs a scene-stealing army of multi-tracked rapping and singing Mos Defs for what Mos is calling the best thing he’s ever done as an MC. Albarn is really cooking with the whole spice rack this time.
While most of the experiments here pop, not everything works. “On Melancholy Hill” is an homage to schmaltzy ’80s synth pop, but where acts like Human League and Tears for Fears got over on pure sincerity and heart-on-sleeve romanticism, Albarn’s megaphoned distance gives the track a disingenuous, even boring, air. This sentiment is only amplified when the next track, the actually forlorn and emotive “Broken,” comes in and blows it out of the water. Also, as pleasant as “Orchestral Intro,” the opening fanfare from sinfonia ViVA, the following track, “Welcome to the World of the Plastic Beach,” works much better as an introduction to the sound and scope of the album. The same goes for closer “Pirate Jet,” which plays a goofy, unnecessary coda to Bobby Womack’s arresting “Cloud of Unknowing.” There’s just a pinch of filler. These are minor hiccups, though. In less capable hands, this album might have collapsed completely under the weight of its ambitions.
Despite the exorbitant number of features and divergent styles, Plastic Beach is very much Albarn’s album. The outside voices and genre experiments are merely accents, additional colors in his palette. Legendary punk institutions Lou Reed, Mark E. Smith, Mick Jones and Paul Simonon turn up at various points during the album’s mid section. With Albarn, though these legends’ contributions exist in service to his songs. He never panders to them; instead, Plastic Beach‘s guest vocals are anchored by Albarn’s own melodic flair. His falsettoed ennui shines through, and the songs are loaded with Albarn’s pet sounds: woozy psychedelia, dubby Caribbean music, laser-beam synths, dance-pop rhythms, hip-hop beats. It all adds up to a sugary treat of an album that very much sounds like it could have been created by the group of wild-eyed, gangly cartoon characters that grace the cover.