Gorillaz - Humanz

by Oliver Rose

I’d like to begin here then, by underlining the reason I chose to review Humanz in the first place: I am a pretty die-hard Gorillaz fan. Yes, it’s true. I bought up all the Plastic Beach promo CD singles by bidding, late night on eBay; I had the (now out-of-print) Rise of the Ogre illustrated biography; I had a Japanese import copy of G-Sides. I get it, ok? I’m one of you… I’m on your team… and I must read like such a killjoy, but the state of things here hurts me just as much as it will you. So remember that – I really wanted to like this album. I really did.

But at every turn, Humanz takes the opportunity to savagely disappoint you. It’s rabid with destructive impulses – foaming at the teeth with vicious mediocrity. In fact, to over-service this metaphor, picture for a moment a rabid, snarling dog: frantic, noisy, and confused. It’s a cross between unnerving and downright annoying, and that’s exactly how Gorillaz’ fourth album sounds… and to now go all A Level history essay on you, I will work methodically through the factors responsible for this (because experience has taught me to employ explicit pathos in any assessment of the over-hyped…). 

We turn firstly then, to the lack of Gorillaz on this Gorillaz album. I can count on one hand the occasions on which Damon Albarn is centre-stage. Worse still, these are some of the record’s weakest moments: the uneventful Busted and Blue (an Everyday Robots outtake?); the corny, late-eighties dance number, Andromeda, inspired (tellingly) by an Essex nightclub of the same name (the sheer glamour). It’s also very obviously Albarn singing, and not his cartoon alter ego, 2-D – there’s no whine; no bunged-up nose tonality. Other character’s signature musical flavours are also amiss. Where are Murdoc’s swampy bass tones, Russel’s splashy drums, and Noodle’s clav-esque synths and electric guitar leads?

In place of ‘the band’, is a plethora of guests – guests by the score – guests, guests everywhere. That’s not a problem in of itself – on Plastic Beach, where guest-spots were far more frequent than on the seminal Demon Days, their implementation was nuanced, and almost always around Albarn. When this formula failed, it didn’t sound like Gorillaz anymore, which sucked (exemplary of this is the track Sweepstakes). Here, there’s a whole album full of it, which ranges from the annoyingly cluttered (Let Me Out, featuring Mavis Staples and Pusha T) to the straight-up offensive (Ascension, featuring Vince Staples). This latter example leads into my second ‘factor’:

This album is way too serious… and it’s costing the project its integrity. Previously, Albarn has been capable of reaching some very unserious and fun spaces via his cartoon band – spaces that other artists’ human reality makes them inflexible to do so. Case in point, Superfast Jellyfish – a post-electro/hip-hop track featuring De La Soul, and concerning a fictitious, jellyfish foodstuff that one microwaves for breakfast (you have to hurry, we’re told; or you’ll miss the meal). And what about Fire Coming out of the Monkey’s Head? A throbbing post-disco plodder, featuring spoken-word narration that recalls an apocalyptic happening in a rural mountain community. Even here, Dennis Hopper’s spoken part isn’t so obtrusive that you forget it’s a Gorillaz song – Albarn hums along behind, and takes the choruses on fully himself. Crucially, the buoyant instrumentation is also consistent with the album’s other songs – it could, ostensibly be the cartoons playing the music.

Here on Humanz, the balance is all wrong. Vince Staples is the brash ego-centre of Ascension, and his aggression is totally unwelcome – “the roof is on fire / she wet like Barbra Streisand / police everywhere / it’s like a n**** killed a white man”… and all the time, he’s only describing some kind of rave, so is the inflammatory, borderline-racist energy really necessary? This is a cartoon band, for goodness’ sake. The same applies to the furrowed-brow pensiveness of Hallelujah Money – and if you thought that song was annoying as a disappointing, teaser-single comeback in January, you wait until you hear it after forty minutes of disappointment. This track leads me into a third ‘fail-factor’:

Humanz almost totally eschews melody. There’s not a hook to be heard on this record. Hallelujah Money, for its part, is unchanging for its excessive four-and-a-half minutes, as Benjamin Clementine’s vocal drunkenly staggers around the mundane rhythm, obscurely lecturing us about US politics (kind of).

When Humanz is ok, it’s because we’re close to the idea of tunefulness – but it’s never ‘good’. The closest we actually come is Popcaan’s anti-reggae rap-hook on Saturn Barz, arguably the album’s highlight. The song throbs; tinny drum-machines, sampled kids’ toys, chiming new wave-synths, and a fat electronic bass-line. Again, it may as well be Popcaan featuring Gorillaz, being as Albarn only limply sings the choruses, but the rising-star rapper does such a rhythmic job of rolling his words around the dark synth-work that it’s still a really fun track. The Grace Jones feature, Charger, also has this great chugging guitar propelling it forward and (for once) Albarn is audible. Carnival tries too, with explosive electronic drums, and gorgeously wonky synths; the exact same thing can be said of She’s My Collar. But none of these is Stylo or Clint Eastwood, and none comes even near.

As if all this weren’t enough, there are annoying interludes, some of which at mere seconds in length can only jokingly be referred to as ‘tracks’, despite contributing toward the elaborate marketing lie that this album contains twenty of said ‘tracks’. Most aggravatingly, these ensure that this album actually flows beautifully. Don’t let this fool you, however, into thinking the album is some cleverly constructed cabaret; it’s more akin to a long, uncoiled stool that comes out in one.

This is one of those difficult moments where one feels compelled to defend something, but ultimately can’t. This Gorillaz album is piss-poor. The art direction is awful, with crappy Jamie Hewlett photoshops that only half-resemble the band, and a complete lack of narrative for which the project is at least partially famous (I didn’t even have word-count left to expand on this). The music is confused, inconsistent, and overwrought with intrusive guest spots. The damn thing’s too long. It’s lyrically obnoxious and it’s not catchy. The formula has completely, completely failed here. I’m not adverse to reinvention, but this doesn’t even resemble what it’s supposed to. There are mere flashes of the thing Gorillaz used to be, but that is it. I’m really surprised, and actually, kind of hurt. So much so, that the review is now just badly paced, and doesn’t really round up and is just a clumsy hunk of component parts. Humanz gets away with all that though, so to be honest, I think we’ll just leave it here.