Dancing At The End Of The World
Damon Albarn resurrects Gorillaz with the dystopian party of Humanz.
It’s actually not a terribly long break considering the time between other Gorillaz Albums, but for a chunk of time we thought there would never be any new Gorillaz music, so it feels like a momentous return no matter the time elapsed. First started by Albarn and Hewlett almost two decades ago, what could’ve been a one-off side project developed into an idiosyncratic pop force — a virtual band, a multimedia project, a constantly morphing and malleable collaboration. It’s as crucial to Albarn’s identity as an artist as Blur is. Given how much has changed in the years between major Gorillaz releases — in music, in technology, in the world — it was exciting to think of what might happen when Albarn returned to this style and headspace of writing. It was exciting to think of what the hell the album might be about, because Gorillaz releases inherently come with their own set of internal rules and logic. They can be about anything.
“A night where everything that you believed in was turned on its head” was, of course, the way Albarn prompted contributors to consider the prospect of election night arriving and, somehow, Donald Trump winning. He was thinking about this when it still seemed like a distant, deluded possibility. But the American fever nightmare of it — a grifting game show host becoming president for his celebrity — is the exact kind of bizarre, upside-down narrative that makes sense on a Gorillaz album.
“[Humanz] is a journey through that night, post-whatever that was,” Albarn explains. “That news. When you go out that night, how do you feel? This record was anticipating that night but trying to make a party out of it.”
Albarn begins the process of building the album around his ideas by conveying all this to potential guests via letter. (“[Some] people are really excited about the prospect,” he says, then adds, chuckling, “You also have people where you have to explain what it is.”) Then, there might be a conversation, or a Skype session. Then they’ll meet in person. Then, maybe and finally, they’ll get to making music. Ninety-eight percent of the time, Albarn is in the studio with his collaborators, giving them lyrics or notes or the song as it exists, and working on pieces of it together. Plenty of times, people come in and record and don’t make it onto any of the finished products, whether album tracks or B-sides.
Though he understandably demurs to mention any of the Gorillaz collaborations that could have been yet never made it out into the world, he’s a little more forthcoming about all the times he’s been rejected, which also happens a lot. There was already the bemusing frustration of the Bee Gees’ Barry Gibb showing up to finally record his part for Plastic Beach, only to suddenly develop an ear infection as he arrived at the studio and promptly leave. This time around, Albarn faced his second rejection from Dionne Warwick.
“This time she got into the studio and I managed to play the piano with her but it still didn’t work out. I’ve been dumped by a lot of potential suitors,” he laughs. Morrissey and Sade were amongst the other artists who passed.
With so many years having elapsed between Gorillaz records, it was easy to imagine all the new names that could make sense (or surprise) within this world Albarn’s dreamt up. And, as usual, there’s wish fulfillment — Danny Brown and a Gorillaz beat go together as zanily well as expected — and more surprising moments, like Ben Mendelsohn’s narration interludes or Albarn enlisting both Jehnny Beth of Savages and his one-time nemesis Noel Gallagher to assist on the uplifting closer “We Got The Power.”
Once he actually corrals everyone and has his studio sessions, things can play out a variety of ways. Sometimes he needs a specificity to the part, and he notes that younger artists are sometimes more concerned with coming in and getting their part right. Other times, it mutates or comes into focus as they’re in the room together. Grace Jones’ ghostly turn on “Charger” was the result of her singing over the track for four hours, ad-libbing and vibing to it. At a later point, Albarn had the studio floor covered in cut up pieces of paper with everything she’d said, finding the fragments that worked and eventually crafting the song from there.
The far-reaching results of these kinds of processes yield albums that wind up broadening the world for those of us who venture down therabbitholes suggested by Albarn’s collision of sounds, traditions, and voices. That was particularly true of Demon Days, where Gorillaz really crystallized into this form from the more modest exploration of the debut. That’s an album that impacted a lot of young listeners in the mid-’00s — including Vince Staples, another ascendant name since the time of Plastic Beach, who leads the charge of Humanz with “Ascension.” A fan since Gorillaz’ sophomore album, Staples met Albarn a few years ago. Albarn told him the name of the beat and Staples took it from there.
“I was happy to be a part of the project,” Staples says of working on Humanz. “The song is great, but it does not compare to the things that [Damon] has taught me about myself and my art, and I will forever be grateful for the opportunity to know him.”
Not every connection forged by Gorillaz is as deep, one would have to imagine, but it’s a telling glimpse into how the collaborations Albarn seeks are a little different than sending a finished track to somebody and asking for a guest verse. Just as Demon Days or Plastic Beach opened new parts of the world to us listeners, it’s striking to hear Albarn talk of these albums and consider how much his life and stature has shifted from once simply being the frontman of a very British rock band. De La Soul — who are now the only guests to appear on a Gorillaz record for the third time with the quirky, propulsive “Momentz” — have simply kept popping back up because they and Albarn have become such good friends.
It’s a distinctly different role to play, rather than sitting in a room with three other musicians and writing an album or orchestrating a musical. There’s as much architectural design, editing, and curating involved in making a Gorillaz record as there is songwriting. Albarn asserts that nobody was really making pop music quite in the same way before Gorillaz, and any imitators since haven’t done it to this extent.
The end result this time around with Humanz is another Gorillaz album lined with genres and voices entangled. Yet, sonically, it most recalls The Fall on the first few listens. As opposed to the density of Demon Days or the sun-soaked melt of Plastic Beach, Humanz continues with some of the bleary-eyed nocturnal qualities of The Fall, sickly rubberiness meeting wistful meditations.
“It’s unashamedly about America,” Albarn says of Humanz. “But not geographically.” As opposed to The Fall’s sleepy tour travelogue, Humanz pushes forward, drawing on our country’s themes and artistic traditions in an attempt to decipher an event as theoretically unexplainable now that it’s real as when it was simply imagined.
***Around the time of Everyday Robots, the narrative that developed around Albarn was a realization about his career, almost as if it was suddenly evident. The man was prolific, but he also shed skin and adopted new identities from one project to the next. It’s one thing for an artist to have a crowded schedule; it’s another for them to shift between roles and genres as much as Albarn does as he flits from something like Rocketjuice & The Moon to solo work to Blur to writing an opera to crafting a Gorillaz album. Since Plastic Beach, Albarn’s major releases were Everyday Robots and The Magic Whip. The return of both Gorillaz and Blur might lead you to assume there could be some kind of streamlining in Albarn’s near future, a renewed focus on his two most prominent projects. Not exactly. Even as he’s seemingly thrilled to be talking about new Gorillaz music after all these years, he teases projects well into the future in the same breath.“I was talking to a mate over lunch,” Albarn says as he collapses into an antique-looking chair in his hotel room. “We were talking about working together in 2020. It’s like that these days. The older I get, the further away the projections are, which is sort of counterintuitive, really.”
Speaking of Simonon, that’s where Albarn’s 2018 is likely headed: Right around the time Humanz will see release, he’s hoping to be finishing up a second album from the Good, The Bad, & The Queen, his for-now one-off project that included Simonon, the Verve’s Simon Tong, and legendary Afrobeat drummer Tony Allen. By the time the new album comes out, it will be more than 10 years since the first. Then positioned as Albarn’s London album just over a decade after Parklife, his return to this particular project will also find him going back to that political, homebound territory — he teases it as his first “post-Brexit commentary” and says it’s so far an extension of the first album but with a more soulful direction and more Afro-centric rhythms, describing the whole thing as being “an Afro-soul Parklife, if that’s possible.”
At this point, we’re used to this version of Albarn — the furiously prolific songwriter, juggling many projects of varying profiles at any given moment. “It’s akin to crop rotation, though not quite as straightforward as that,” he says of shifting between these worlds. “There is something to be said for leaving stuff alone and coming back when you really feel an empathy for it, and not doing it just for the sake of it.”
“They come into focus when there’s an urgency to them,” Albarn says of moving between projects, and of occasionally taking many years between installments by one act or another. And, looking around the world in early 2016, he had a hell of a lot of material to find that urgency for Humanz.
***“Gorillaz is my American band,” Albarn declares at one point, somewhat surprisingly. This is a guy who was originally galvanized as an artist by a particularly miserable time traveling around America, an experience that helped catalyze the super-British focus of Blur’s Britpop trilogy (and therefore helped catalyze the Britpop movement in general). There were already clear moments when Albarn had moved from that position — Blur’s self-titled 1997 record embraced some facets of American indie music — but it’s still unexpected to hear him draw lines as distinctly as claiming Gorillaz as his American project. Musically, there’s plenty of evidence for it at least: Gorillaz draws on more obviously American genres than Blur ever did.“I don’t think there would be Gorillaz if there wasn’t America,” Albarn ventures. “I don’t think there’s anywhere in the world that has the sort of resources to keep something like Gorillaz afloat, other than America. It’s big. It really is. God bless America.” He delivers the final line with a sardonic grin and a laugh.
Aside from the thematic premise of Humanz there’s also a practical definition underlying the idea of Gorillaz as an American project from a British artist. Back when Everyday Robots came out, it seemed as if you’d hear every variation of how and why people knew Albarn’s music: old indie dudes who had loved Blur in the ’90s and kept following him; people who knew Gorillaz hits and figured out who he was, then dug backwards; people who were just realizing the guy was one and t
he same even though they’d liked both.
But no matter how you cut all of that, Gorillaz had major hits in America; Blur had one, and it was their piss-take on American rock music. When it comes to those of us who were teenagers in America during the mid-’00s rather than the mid-’90s, this stuff is ingrained — the singles from Gorillaz feel more like they’re ours than any of the Blur stuff, no matter the degree to which the latter is also rightfully beloved.
It’s true that all the component parts are out there waiting to be assembled. All these years later, with new Gorillaz music out in the world, the lingering power of its concept lies more in how Albarn looks out at what exists, and how he brings it all together. They were always interested in that — “like two words that shouldn’t work together, genres that shouldn’t work together, colors that shouldn’t work together.” One of his reasons for calling the album Humanz was the balance of male and female voices across all the songs, and you could also point to the diversity of race, genre, and nationality within those same tracks.
That’s the thing about Gorillaz and all that dystopia: It draws on those disparate elements to present a utopia that shouldn’t be all that far out of reach. From the bleak premise Humanz opens with, it ends with a rallying cry, punctuating the album-length argument with a simple message in “We Got The Power”: There are ways to build a better world.
“Spiritually, the music and the way it’s constructed — that comes from an American idiom,” Albarn argues.