Lets face it. Humanz wasn’t great. Gorillaz’s 2017 effort had all the right elements; a politically fired-up Damon Albarn, a revamped Jamie Hewlett art direction and the usual diverse array of guest spots. But something was missing. Sure, there were a few choice cuts and glimmers of hope, but beyond these the Gorillaz magic was lost. You can understand my reticence then, when The Now Now was announced with not more than a year passed since their anthropic flop. Were we in store for more of the same? Or even worse, a weak-handed apology for the sins of Humanz.
At face value, The Now Now is neither. Written while on tour and recorded primarily for the purpose of having a new body of songs for summer festivals, the album aligns itself more with The Fall, released a year after 2010’s Plastic Beach. Both albums share an unusual lack of collaborators and cliched location names as track titles. With fingerstyle guitar and a lullaby quality, the track Idaho could easily have found a place on The Fall or Damon’s solo work. But on this album of programmed beats and electro funk, the song straddles the line between being a welcome break and falling completely out of place. It is also where the comparisons between The Now Now and The Fall start and finish.
The highest concentration of funk is contained in the album opener and lead single Humility. A positive, beachy sounding track that is the first Gorillaz song to be a truly pleasant listen for a long time. Excusing the reference to fictional band members, 2D’s voice in both this and the following track Tranz is back to its usual standard. Long gone are Albarn’s thinly-veiled demo vocals from Humanz. It is in Tranz and other more groove driven songs like Kansas that you can hear the influence of all-star producer James Ford. They sound tight and much more disciplined than has previously been indulged in some Gorillaz album tracks. In a radio interview, Damon emphasised the huge impact Ford had on co-producing this The Now Now, both lyrically and musically.
In the same interview, it was revealed that the lack of feature artists was due to time restraints, rather than by design. This is never clearer than in Lake Zurich. The song is a triumph of 80’s synthpop and wholly displays Albarn’s prowess behind a synthesizer. The sound alone is enough to make it an album pick. Despite this, the track begs desperately for a guest feature, leaving the audience with only a lackluster spoken bridge, submerged knee-deep in the mix.
However, when the artists do show up, it doesn’t get much better. The second single Hollywood features two previous Gorillaz collaborators: Snoop Dogg and Jamie Principle. Snoop’s verse is exactly what you would expect from an artist who has been elongating his path to irrelevance for twenty years. You get the feeling Damon is starstruck and can’t say no. The Jamie Principle situation is just sad. The house music pioneer is a Bobby Womack soundalike in a world without Bobby Womack. It is as if the song was written with the late Gorillaz collaborator and good friend of Damon in mind. Principle just doesn’t hold up to the comparisons. Add to this, middle aged Damon Albarn singing the hooks “It makes you kill the vibe” and “Jealousy is vibe down”. It feels like a father trying to find validation from a cool new word he has learnt. “Hollywood is alright, Hollywood is vagrant”. Hollywood is a car crash.
The slim pickings continue when it comes to the second half of the album. Fireflies and One Percent try to provide dark and melancholic touches to the mostly upbeat album. Both are tender and lyrically beautiful but end up largely forgotten. Souk Eye, however, couldn’t make for a more appropriate album close. The song has the melodic brilliance of the Gorillaz of old, along with an anthemic, jubilant sound. Bursts of strings and xylophone tie in with acoustic guitar to perfectly evoke Plastic Beach.
In amongst, Magic City shares a cadence with Humility while having a laughably lazy hook of (who would have thought?): “Magic City, Magic City”. The magic city in question is Los Angeles, and whether pondering its complications in Souk Eye or exploring its emptiness in Hollywood, the theme of LA is spread thick throughout the album. This marks the main distinction, and saving grace, of The Now Now in comparison to last year’s release. There is not one mention of Trump.
While Humanz clumsily jumped on board with identity politics to call out issues of corruption, race and injustice (often in one verse), The Now Now takes an introspective look at Albarn’s own response to politics, fame and Hollywood. It gently suggests that in a world of global news and social media the most interesting aspect is how one reacts to it all. If the heavy handed approach of Humanz flopped, then The Now Now is at least a step in the right direction.