“In these times of sedition, well, nothing is dull”
Released: 28 April 2017
Recorded: September 2015 – 2016
Genre: Art Pop, Electropop
Producer: Damon Albarn, Remi Kabaka, The Twilite Tone
Length: 49:19 (1:08:55 w/ bonus tracks)
Issue Date: 2017
Best Track: Busted and Blue
TRACKS: 1) Intro: I Switched My Robot Off; 2) Ascension; 3) Strobelite; 4) Saturnz Barz; 5) Momentz; 6) Interlude: The Non-Conformist Oath; 7) Submission; 8) Charger; 9) Interlude: Elevator Going Up; 10) Andromeda; 11) Busted and Blue; 12) Interlude: Talk Radio; 13) Carnival; 14) Let Me Out; 15) Interlude: Penthouse; 16) Sex Murder Party; 17) She’s My Collar; 18) Interlude: The Elephant; 19) Hallelujah Money; 20) We Got the Power; [BONUS TRACKS:] 21) Interlude: New World; 22) The Apprentice; 23) Halfway to the Halfway House; 24) Out of Body; 25) Ticker Tape; 26) Circle of Friendz
Gorillaz is a virtual band masterminded by musician Damon Albarn (of Blur) and artist Jamie Hewlett, and comprised of fictional members 2-D, Murdoc Niccals, Noodle, and Russel Hobbs. This project has become famous over the course of the 2000s, in part due to its music, mixing pop, electronic and hip hop while incorporating a variety of guest stars, and in part due to the universe in which the band evolves, as can be seen in its music videos and other promotional material. Demon Days (2005) is their most popular release, and their most well-known songs include “Clint Eastwood”, “Feel Good Inc.”, “DARE”, and “On Melancholy Hill”.
What may have been Damon Albarn’s greatest challenge in reviving the Gorillaz name seven years after its last release was to update the project’s sound for the current era, all while remaining distinctly Gorillaz. For such a pop act to retain its relevance and popularity over the years, with long spans of silence from one record to another, it needs to keep its eyes peeled on the sound of mainstream music as it evolves and stay on the cutting edge; Albarn had already pulled this off with Demon Days and Plastic Beach (2010), but the span of time between the latter album and Gorillaz’ latest effort saw many changes in popular culture, not just musically but socially and politically as well.
Humanz (2017) reflects these changes, as it is a far cry from its predecessors in many regards. The music is now mostly dance-oriented, and the sound reflects this decision by giving its wide array of beats all the punch it needs, and then some — more so than the previous records, for that matter. In addition, the selection of collaborators, including classic names (Grace Jones, De La Soul) as well as recent sensations (Danny Brown, Vince Staples), shows an added emphasis on hip hop and R&B. In fact, this list of features is even longer than that of Plastic Beach: without including the interludes, only one out of 14 songs (19 with the bonuses included) has Damon Albarn perform (mostly) alone.
Some fans saw this as a bad sign, and they were right in doing so, as the abundance of guest stars is indicative of Humanz‘ biggest qualities as well as its biggest flaws. What’s worth noting, first of all, is that the place these guest stars occupy is even larger than on the previous albums: looking only at the vocals, the majority of the tracks prominently feature those collaborators, and in a couple of cases, Damon Albarn doesn’t appear at all (“Strobelite”, “Submission”, “Carnival”). Nevertheless, it would be unfair to say he has no presence on the record, as he does take the spotlight on a couple of notable cuts, notably “Andromeda” and “Busted and Blue”, which hearken the most to Gorillaz’ classic material as a result.
This doesn’t seem like an issue at first glance, but it does demonstrate a creative approach that gives credence to the accusation that Humanz is not quite a Gorillaz record, and this approach is especially easy to see when it comes to the political theme. The album is, according to Damon Albarn, an “emotional response to politics”: to be precise, the guest stars were instructed to envision a future where Donald Trump won the 2016 United States presidential election (Humanz was recorded before the results came in) and use this as inspiration. Some songs, however, approach this idea in completely different ways: for instance, the lead single “Hallelujah Money” is more ambiguous in that regard, while “Ascension” and “Let Me Out” tackle the theme head-on, going as far as to “directly” mention Trump or Barrack Obama — I say “directly”, since Albarn edited out all references to either of the two figures.
This detail is one of a few that suggest Humanz‘ collaborators may have had too much freedom during the recording process, as the overall album displays a variety of approaches and ideas (contradictory ideas at that, in the case of the concept) that haven’t been sufficiently reworked so as to create a perfectly consistent experience. Yes, there were lots of guest stars on Demon Days and Plastic Beach, but their performances were used as a complement to an overarching style — Humanz fails to do the same, because few of these guests stars manage to justify their presence on the album, let alone offer a memorable performance: the most egregious example is Grace Jones, whose vocals on “Charger” amount to a few short lines. What’s more, some tracks could have outright appeared somewhere else: “Saturnz Barz”, “Carnival” and “Let Me Out” aren’t bad, but I wouldn’t have any trouble believing Gorillaz were the feature if they came out on the collaborators’ own records, given that parts of their sound or vocals clash with the rest of the material.
Still, is Humanz irredeemable simply because it betrays much of the Gorillaz identity? Not necessarily: while the album does suffer from inconsistencies, it retains a certain coherence regarding the actual music. For starters, its overall intent is not to reflect on the idea of a Trump presidency, but rather to give the impression of a party in the aftermath of a massive event of the sort. When it comes to that, Humanz is surprisingly effective, given that it’s packed with club-ready dance music that conveys a feeling of chaos in part because of the diversity in sound and in performances.
In addition to this, the material follows a certain progression: the main album is divided into six segments, demarcated by interludes that each set the tone for the songs that follow, even though they initially seem unnecessary (they’re only short monologues, although “The Non-Conformist Oath” is a fun tongue-in-cheek moment). The first two sections of Humanz are its most vibrant and upbeat, with energetic dance tracks such as “Strobelite” and “Charger”; after that, the “Elevator Going Up” section dials back the energy and serves as a centerpiece as well as a breather, before bringing back the dance tracks and adding a darker mood in the “Talk Radio” and “Penthouse” segments. Finally, “The Elephant” sets the stage for the record’s grimmest number (“Hallelujah Money”), which is followed immediately by the uplifting closer “We Got the Power”.
What’s remarkable about the sequencing is that it gives almost every track a clear purpose, even when they aren’t that good in the first place. There are exceptions, of course — as great as the video for “Saturnz Barz” is, the song is one of the most jarring on Humanz due to its autotuned performance from guest star Popcaan, and it’s little more than a breather between two hard dance numbers. For that matter, the “Talk Radio” section could have easily been removed: “Carnival” is the album’s least interesting cut, given that it lacks both the Gorillaz flair and any notable hooks, and “Let Me Out”, while a solid tune, adds little to the overall experience (in fact, its blunt political lyrics detract from it instead).
Otherwise, everything ranges from good to excellent. “Ascension” is a wonderful opener, kicking off Humanz on a high note thanks to an energetic Vince Staples performance backed up by a strong beat and a memorable hook. “Strobelite” is almost as good thanks to an infectious, shimmering groove and Peven Everett’s soulful vocals, and the heavier “Momentz” isn’t too far behind. When it comes to picking a favorite, however, the laid-back and Albarn-dominated “Andromeda” seems like an obvious choice, as it stands out as the most quintessentially Gorillaz song on the record, in a similar way as “Feel Good Inc.” or “On Melancholy Hill”. The ambient-like ditty “Busted and Blue” is even better, though: it’s a brilliant song that makes full use of Albarn’s subdued vocal style in conjunction with a swelling assortment of keyboard lines so as to offer a relaxing break from all the hard-hitting material that surrounds it.
It’s quite unfortunate, then, that the only song after “Busted and Blue” that reaches up to the highlights in the first three sections is “She’s My Collar”, but it’s a doozy either way, as the contrast between Damon Albarn’s quiet performance and the abrasive instrumental backing gives it a very strong, climactic feel. What’s also interesting is that “Hallelujah Money”, the lead single that was supposedly not going to appear on Humanz, makes much more sense in the album than it did in isolation. Back when it came out, it was easy to think little of it because of its slow pace and obvious lyrical symbolism, but it’s actually much more effective as the penultimate track, since it unleashes the dark atmosphere that the record built up since “Carnival”. A similar idea applies to “We Got the Power”: on its own, it’s a flaccid anthemic number with clumsy lyricism, but it does succeed in ending Humanz on an emotional high.
If 14 full tracks aren’t enough, the deluxe edition of this record also contains an extra 6 (“Interlude: New World” is worth including, since it really is a musical interlude), and they are all very good aside from the sluggish “Ticker Tape” and the uneventful “Circle of Friendz”, though the latter could replace “We Got the Power” as the album closer just fine. The best of the bonuses is “The Apprentice”, another calm dance number with powerful soul vocals and a great chorus, though Zebra Katz’ verse could have been replaced with a more interesting middle-eight.
With all things considered, Humanz will undoubtedly disappoint old fans of Gorillaz, as it fails to utilize its guest stars in such a way as to build upon an overall theme: the result is a record that occasionally sounds more like a mixtape instead. Nevertheless, this issue aside, the songs themselves are mostly good, if not sometimes great, and they retain a certain cohesion thanks to an excellent track sequencing. If Damon Albarn continues to give his collaborators this much room to contribute ideas, however, then the next album in that vein shouldn’t be under the Gorillaz name.
PERSONAL RATING: ***½ (leaning towards ****)
RECOMMENDATION RATING: ***½
LETTERED RATING: Alpha
For my part, the tracklisting for Humanz could be improved by removing “Saturnz Barz”, the “Penthouse” interlude, “Sex Murder Party” and the entire “Talk Show” section, then adding the bonus tracks from “New World” up to “Out of Body” after “Busted and Blue”. This would remove all the excess material while preserving the flow in the first two sections and improving the progression in the second half (past “Busted”), particularly when it comes to having the material grow darker and darker. “We Got the Power” could also be replaced by “Circle of Friendz”, so as to provide a more peaceful ending.
If you’re a long-time Gorillaz fan, what do you think of this album on its own and in comparison to the rest of the group’s work? What would your ideal tracklist be? Considering the stylistic inconsistencies, this seems to be an album for the “playlist era”, so to speak.