The design is simple, but memorable: four panels against a black background. It’s reminiscent of the cover art for Let It Be—but instead of the Beatles, we’re looking at cartoon characters, illustrated in varying hues and degrees of suspicion. In the top left corner, Murdoc Niccals resembles a gothic, mauve-colored Keith Richards. To his right, jaundiced-looking 2D smokes in a tam-o-shanter. Down below, sickly green, but perpetually stylish Noodle side-eyes Death in a skull-and-crossbones cap, and Russell Hobbs stares squarely into the white space before him, purple skin matching his purple shades. This is Demon Days, the most legendary record by the most legendary virtual band.
Created as a half-satirical, half-sincere art project by Blur frontman Damon Albarn and comic book creator Jamie Hewlett in 1998, Gorillaz were always destined for greatness. On Demon Days, their sophomore album, they fulfilled their destiny. With the album’s success, they proved that “Clint Eastwood” wasn’t just a one-hit wonder, that fictional characters could be just as relevant as “real” stars (this was ages before Paris Hilton admitted her schtick was essentially business-savvy performance art). When De La Soul recorded his famous “Feel Good Inc.” laugh, he had no idea that he was contributing to what is now one of the most recognizable song intros in 21st-century music history—but fifteen years later, that laugh is still echoing.
Although it played around with dub and alt-rock, Gorillaz’ self-titled debut is best described as a lo-fi hip-hop album. Demon Days is more electronic, more upbeat; it could almost be called “pop,” except for the fact that most of its lyrics are too apocalyptic or obscure to be radio-friendly. Its hooks are unforgettable; its melodies irresistible. Yet make no mistake—Gorillaz were never in the business of churning out banal, formulaic singles. Demon Days helped establish the band’s reputation for experimentation: on “El Mañana,” Noodle plays guitar in a flamenco style; “Every Planet We Reach Is Dead” is a bluesy ballad; “Fire Coming out of the Monkey’s Head” is a spoken-word fable.
Demon Days was also the first Gorillaz album to emphasize collaborations—now a hallmark of the band’s music. Though their self-titled debut featured guest vocalists Ibrahim Ferrer (of Buena Vista Social Club) and Del the Funky Homosapien, more often than not, 2D sang alone. On Demon Days, he was joined by a star-studded cast spanning a spectrum of eras and genres. Neneh Cherry, Bootie Brown, De La Soul, Ike Turner, MF Doom, Roots Manuva, Martina Topley-Bird, Shaun Ryder, and Dennis Hopper all made appearances. Their presence on the record is never overwhelming; rather, it feels necessary. Demon Days, they seem to be saying, is everyone’s story.
The title Demon Days instantly conjures up dark imagery. Yet unlike the shock rock bands of the era, Gorillaz wasn’t out to frighten audiences; nor were they interested in lambasting their “inner demons” like their emo contemporaries. The demons they were fighting were the evils of George W. Bush’s Western World—war, imperialism, rampant consumerism, environmental destruction. Quite a lot for cartoons to tackle—but Gorillaz have always been larger than life.
“Kids with Guns” and “Dirty Harry,” two early standouts on the tracklist, could be considered precursors to “Pumped Up Kicks.” The former was written after a child in Albarn’s daughter’s class brought a knife to school. Unfortunately, it’s just as haunting today as it was in 2005, considering how many school shootings have occurred since it was written. In an interview at the time of the album’s release, Albarn made it clear that he didn’t want to stigmatize violent youths; rather, he saw them as victims of “the brutalization of a generation.” In keeping with this theme, the song is as somber as it is scary, driven by repetitive lyrics and a simple, eerie bassline. “Dirty Harry” is its sonic opposite. A children’s choir sings cheerily; then a funky dance break ensues—but listen to the lyrics, and you’ll find that they’re about the Iraq War. The dissonance is terrifying, when you think about it. It’s easy to not think about it, though—and that’s exactly the point.
Even “Feel Good Inc.,” the album’s (and the band’s) biggest hit, carries a foreboding message. The song climbed the Billboard Hot 100 and won a Grammy for a reason—it’s an absolute barrage of hooks. It’s hard to say which is most iconic: Murdoc’s slinky bassline, 2D’s whispered beatboxing and falsetto “feel good,” the yearning chorus (the word “windmill” has never sounded more heartbreaking), or De La Soul’s rhythmic “ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!” Beneath all the catchiness, though, is a commentary on advertisers and corporations who market escapism to the masses.
Gorillaz may be critics, but they’re far from cynics. Not all of the songs on Demon Days are heavy with doom and gloom. “Dare,” featuring vocals from Roses Gabor as Noodle and Happy Mondays’ Shaun Ryder as… the giant head who lives in her closet, is a buoyant dance track. With its major-key melody and lyrics like “Jump back and forth!”, it provides listeners with a welcome mid-album breather. Closure doesn’t arrive, though, until the title track—the spectacular finale. Gorillaz themselves called it “the light at the end of the tunnel, the dawn after the longest night of the soul”; they couldn’t be more correct. United as one healing force, the London Community Gospel Choir sings a message of hope: “Turn yourself! Turn yourself round to the sun…” On another album, it might come across as trite; on Demon Days, it feels earned.
In future phases, Gorillaz would grow even more ambitious. On Plastic Beach, they lamented the desecration of planet Earth with the help of synthpop, Snoop Dogg, and Lou Reed. On Humanz, they threw an anti-racist, anti-fascist “party at the end of the world” with a roster of rap and R&B icons ranging from Mavis Staples to Vince Staples. Currently, they’re in the middle of Song Machine, a YouTube series that features a new single with new guest artists every few weeks. Yet Demon Days will always be beloved as the album that made them go down in history—the blueprint for their future success. Gorillaz may be a virtual band, but their impact is decidedly real.