During Gorillaz’ 2010 American tour behind Plastic Beach, frontman/co-creator Damon Albarn decided to pass the time on the road by making an entirely new album on his iPad. Released on Christmas Day that year, The Fall was Albarn’s personal diary while cruising through one of the most populated places in the world and still feeling alone. No matter where he’s gone or how much he’s accomplished, Albarn has always found inspiration in isolation. The whole point of Gorillaz itself is to be a separation from the norms of being a rock band and the last time the world checked in on Gorillaz, last year’s harsh and (ironically) robotic Humanz, it seemed like Albarn and Jamie Hewlett’s cartoon creations had become more detached from reality than ever. Is there a way to come back from that?
This is where The Fall comes in, or in this case The Now Now. The sixth studio album by Gorillaz was not made on an iPad nor was it done while Albarn was on tour. What it does share with The Fall is that it seems like a addendum to Gorillaz’s last body of work. Whereas The Fall was the spacey and lightweight coda to the hazy funk of Plastic Beach, The Now Now is the breezy cool-down from the harsh aggression of Humanz. Only 11 tracks long with a 41-minute runtime, The Now Now sounds like the easiest Gorillaz album to take in. There are no experimental tracks, no heavy guitars with feedback, no freaky orchestral arrangements and no random spoken-word segments by Dennis Hopper. It’s mish-mash of glitzy, slow synth pop that would be fitting elevator music at the offices of DFA Records.
“Lake Zurich” and “Tranz” sound like LCD Soundsystem demos with their hand-clap drums and disco synths, while “Magic City” and “Fire Flies” sound like what The Cure would play when they want to fade into the smoke and lights at the end of their concerts. The only real traces of Gorillaz are in the goofy reggae bounce of opening track “Humility,” one of the lightest tracks the band has ever done, and the haunting urban groove of “Hollywood.” There are actually more traces of Albarn’s 2014 solo album Everyday Robots with the bare-bones acoustics of “Idaho” and “Souk Eye.” The band seems lost and aimless after having such a tight and aggressive grip on their music on Humanz. Like The Fall, it’s as if Albarn is looking outside his window aimlessly observing the world passing him by but not making any new observations.
First impressions are everything but The Now Now is more comatose than woke. “Humility” finds Albarn (or his cartoon avatar 2D) adrift in whatever headspace he’s currently in trying to find something to pull him back to Earth (“And if you’re coming back to find me/You’d better have good aim/Shoot it true, I need you in the picture”). And then….the album doesn’t actually seem to go anywhere, or at least anywhere interesting. 2D is alone and wants to restart his being on “Kansas” (“’Cause I’m about to solve it/Put my engine back into overdrive/So I can breathe again, photosynthesize again/With the green hills of my home”). Later 2D is alone in the big city still trying to find something to grasp on to in “Magic City” (“You got me lost in Magic City/You got me questioning it all/I hope that I make it home by Wednesday/And this Magic City lets me go”). And then at the album closer “Souk Eye,” 2D has finally returned home and yet is longing for the bright lights and allure of Los Angeles (“Why you rolling waves over me now, that’s all I need, dreaming/Waiting on LA to come find me, be forgiven/I’ll be a regular guy for you, I never said I’d do that/Why you looking so beautiful to me now when you so sad?”). There seem to be chunks missing from the album’s narrative about how 2D and co. went from drifting in an empty culture to longing it for it like a lost lover. The two connecting pieces of the story that flow best are “Hollywood,” where house music icon Jamie Principle and rapper Snoop Dogg tour Gorillaz through the seedy temptation of L.A. (“I put the cake on the plate/Jealousy and me? Oh, we’re making a date/I’ma vibe with this, Hollywood, n***a I’ma survive this s**t”). “Idaho” meanwhile is something of a hangover to the lost weekend on “Hollywood” where the band goes back to drifting aimlessly (“Looking for clear water/I had to take control/Out there in the wilderness/Another bullet hole”). It’s vague, but at least it’s a fitting follow-up to a vibe on the album.
Aside from that, The Now Now is an aimless and boring affair. While Albarn has always displayed loneliness in creative ways before, his lyrics seem bored and unfocused. And even then the music isn’t taking any risks or even recycling the interesting elements of Gorillaz’s sound. It feels like the early ideas Albarn would draw up to springboard into full-fledged songs. It’s somewhat fitting that the album cover is of a warped shadow of 2D performing alone. Like Damon Albarn thinking he has a clear vision for the next Gorillaz album when it’s actually just some kind of distant mirage.