Gorillaz were never outstanding at being normal. Their entire concept was built around a unique, cartoon-and-internet band experience that no other group had succeeded with, at the time of their creation. So chalk it up to strange times of pandemics, politics, and social movements to bring out the best parts of those that thrive on the weird. After a couple of inconsistent homecoming records, Gorillaz seem to have rediscovered their musical flexibility and clever usage of artist features on their newest release, Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez (2020). But this time, their cohesive, conceptual side has been thrown away for a new ambitious goal; perfecting the single; one that they seem to have accomplished on their first try.
Following the releases of their recent, intriguing-but-fractured singles, it was hard to see a world where their new project could come together into a Demon Days (2005) esque masterpiece. There were few, if any, steady themes that could be focused on, or developed in a linear fashion. But here, Gorillaz lean in to that exact idea, and in doing so, have made a statement. None of the tracks on this record directly meld into or out of another, and as a result, the LP doesn’t flow with a seamless rhythm or rhyme. Instead, every cut brings its own flair and journey along with it. The individual artist features thus determine the direction of the track, using elements of their genres to compliment the wacky electronica that Gorillaz have become known for.
Alongside those more traditional music stars are other, younger, either recently-established, or up-and-coming artists. Luckily, due to the updated sounds of the older artists, and Gorillaz’ ear for unique combinations, these newer perspectives and styles don’t feel unnatural. This is seen more literally in the track “The Pink Phantom,” as hip-hop artist 6LACK layers his flow alongside Elton John in a weirdly-pleasing fashion. There’s something about the juxtaposition of the heavily-altered sound of his verse and the natural beauty of Elton John’s voice that makes both of them pop out even more. But of course, the Gorillaz don’t need time to force those intriguing fusions on them. Songs like “Momentary Bliss” take new hip-hop giant slowthai, with small punk duo, Slaves, and place them into a tropical, laid-back jam very separate from their standard attitude-filled jams. If you were to simply glance at the feature list before entering the tracks, you’d have certain expectations; and while some of them may be correct (like in the case of Robert Smith), others are increasingly subverted.
Gorillaz’ new record, Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez, is a great summarization package of the styles and accomplishments from the highlights of their past. It may lack a singular thread that ties it all together, but in the acceptance of that, they assure more variety and quality with every song that’s featured. What could have turned into a randomly assorted cluster, similar to their first comeback record, instead mimics the timeless classic of Plastic Beach, but this time, with even more exploration. The band plays with feature artists like a grandmaster plays with chess pieces; weaving them in confusing, but intelligent ways until it results in a complete victory. This is by far their best return-record, and considering it’s just part one to a continuously-developing series, it’s hard not to be excited for more.