The most important thing to remember about Gorillaz is that they’re not real. No matter what feelings a listener gets from songs about alienation, the staleness of the surrounding culture, or just taking action instead of moping, the “band” playing the music isn’t there. Even if each song had layers and texture to it, at the center is a facade.
Despite this, Gorillaz have played at the Grammys with Madonna, got Snoop Dogg to be in a cartoon (and not an embarrassing one), and got millions of excited party-happy kids at Glastonbury to chant “I ain’t happy.” Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett have pulled a true Keyser Soze on millions of people around the world, creating a wall of distortion between them and their audience. It’s Pink Floyd’s The Wall fully-formed.
That digital curtain is more distorted and hazy than ever before on Humanz, the outfit’s fifth studio album and first in seven years. At just under 50 minutes with a staggering 20 tracks (not including the six bonus tracks on the deluxe edition), Humanz is the album where it’s more obvious than ever that the Gorillaz are removed from the reality of their listeners.
The universe of Humanz isn’t one to be desired, with its consistently gloomy musical atmosphere. Most of the songs are flushed with low, spacey synthesizers, boom-bap drums, and Damon’s vocals hidden behind echo vocal effects occasionally interrupted by interludes narrated by Ben Mendelsohn. It’s a consistent flow throughout the album, a haunting disco kicked off by the forceful Vince Staples on the manic rave of “Ascension.”
The album has other moments of bracing force, like “Momentz” with De La Soul turning the “seize the moment” empowerment anthem into a robotic war cry. “Charger” is a prime piece of aggressive alternative rock pushed forward by a chugging fuzz-guitar riff and Grace Jones. “We Got the Power” might be one of the easier songs to digest with its 90s New Order electronic sound.
For the most part, Humanz stays in its murky, almost gothic sound. “Hallelujah Money” remains a standout single, with Benjamin Clementine’s ghostly vocals complementing the light industrial organs in the background, while “Andromeda” is an organ-heavy trip through space that sounds like classic Roxy Music.
Even “Saturnz Barz” with the imposing presence of Popcaan stays with a simple droning organ note as the base of the song with light synthesizer plinks and stuttering drums in the background. Gorillaz always knows how to bring things together, and Humanz is certainly has some interesting mixes. Mavis Staples and Pusha T create a surprisingly strong balance on the soulful banger “Let Me Out,” while Danny Brown’s cartoonish delivery mixes with Kelela’s passionate vocals on the bouncy “Submission.”
There is only one solo Gorillaz song here, “Busted and Blue,” a mournful ballad where Damon (as 2D) sends out a fearful transmission stuck inside the internet age, like Major Tom floating to his grave in Bowie’s “Space Oddity.” Humanz is not as sparse as the iPad-backed The Fall, but it does feel very empty. That’s actually what makes the album interesting. To hear Albarn, someone who usually packs a plethora of influences into Gorillaz’s music, back such a low-key set of songs is a real departure.
In a recent interview, Albarn revealed that he took out any references to the election of Donald Trump as president. In place of that, Gorillaz try to find companionship in the vast emptiness around them. Take “Strobelite,” where singer Peven Everett shows soul in talking about finding love under the lights of nightclubs (“Girl, your life will turn/Just like a strobe/’Cause your daddy’s pain/And your mother won’t/And your heart engages into heartless throes”). Danny Brown makes for a fine case of a screwup in a relationship on “Submission” (“If you could see inside of me/There’d be no heart on my X-Ray”) while Vince Staples makes his own offbeat humor on “Ascension” (“The roof is on fire/She wet like Barbra Streisand/Police everywhere/It’s like a n***a killed a white man”). Gorillaz did inherit Albarn’s fear of technology as on “Busted and Blue,” (“I was asked by a computer/A shadow on the wall/An image made by Virgil/To rule over us all”), along with fear of greed on “Hallelujah Money” (“What we have always dreamt of having/Are now for the starving”). And try as he might, Albarn can’t avoid the all-too-real current presidency thanks to Pusha T (“Obama is gone, who is left to save us?”).
A great way to look at Humanz is by looking at the music video for “Saturnz Barz,” where the Gorillaz sit on asteroids surrounding Saturn. Humanz circles around a bright, beaming theme but never gets too close to it. It never connects to something tangible and feels rather broken up. The songs on their own are good, but they never really connect with each other to form a complete album, which Gorillaz have done on Demon Days and Plastic Beach.
Humanz is by no means a bad album, it’s definitely fascinating to hear Gorillaz become so separated from their own music. But that’s the trick of Gorillaz, seeing how far their non-existence can go. Maybe Damon spoiled the surprise of a new album by releasing so many singles so early on or chatting up the album.
Regardless, Gorillaz have not, are not, and probably never will be boring. But even if they’re never truly there, it helps to have something deeper behind the wall.