How cool is Damon Albarn? This cool: He helped invent Britpop as Blur’s lead singer; he released a critically acclaimed album, The Good, The Bad & The Queen, with a four-man supergroup that didn’t even have a name; he wrote the music for a Chinese opera about a monkey king (“Monkey: Journey to the West”); and he fronts the world’s first virtual band, the hand-drawn Gorillaz, whose latest album Plastic Beach uses digital instruments to comment on artificiality. You really can’t get much cooler than Damon Albarn — enterprising musicians, beware.
With Plastic Beach, the characters (in every sense) of Gorillaz find their virtual identities mirrored in the music. Listeners have become used to the idea of a cartoon band. What’s new on Plastic Beach is that the songs mimic real life, too.
The imitation is apparent from the intro track, as recorded sounds of seagulls and crashing waves are overlaid and then overcome by an equally swelling orchestral approximation of an ocean. In “Superfast Jellyfish,” squeaky, super-high vocals play like island steel drums. Guest artists Gruff Rhys (Super Furry Animals) and the members of De La Soul trade cutesy lines praising the latest prepackaged breakfast treat.
Mos Def’s stream-of-consciousness delivery on “Sweepstakes” is likewise framed by ambient noises. Rhythmic slot-machine beeps help power the track into a brash celebration of risk-taking, before it fades out in a whistled chorus.
Plastic Beach is loosely a concept album about consumerism and waste. But if Gorillaz is judging the fake, combustible culture to which it belongs, it’s only doing so implicitly. Lou Reed sums up the general attitude of the album on “Some Kind Of Nature,” as he wryly intones: “Well me, I like plastics / And digital foils.” The disc is a mixed bag, serving as both “some kind of majesty” and “chemical load.”
Despite its conceit, Plastic Beach doesn’t preach the issues. Its poppy hooks and arcing melodies speak for themselves. The album is catchy-cool from start (Snoop Dogg lackadaisically welcoming us to the “plastic beach”) to finish (Albarn — or animated vocalist 2D — bragging: “We left the taps / Running / For a hundred years”). With Albarn’s slick, conniving voice and steadily marching music underneath, frankly, pollution has never seemed so enticing.
Of course, the album has some shortcomings — “Empire Ants” drifts a bit longer than it should and “Cloud of Unknowing” feels lost at sea — but nothing seriously interrupts the album’s flow. And its highlights are nothing short of beautiful: “On Melancholy Hill” finds Albarn crooning a dreamy melody over electronic distortion, while atmospheric love song “To Binge” rolls along like a gentle frolic in the waves.
Generally, the album is calmer and softer than Gorillaz’s earlier work. Nothing even approaches the crazed energy of “Feel Good Inc.” or “Dare,” but “White Flag” matches their quirkiness. Fun and funny, the song’s delicate Middle Eastern instrumental opening runs smack into a mouthful of British rap backed by arcade-game beeps.
Plastic Beach is a fresh commentary on disposable industry — both the physical industry polluting the oceans and the music industry, in which artists often seem like nothing but cartoon faces singing other people’s songs. Maybe the two-dimensional members of Gorillaz are a sign for the future of pop music — virtual art made by virtual artists. It’s a disconcerting idea, but with Damon Albarn’s kooky hipness, it’s one we should probably get used to.