Damon Albarn’s cartoon quartet is back with an impeccable assortment of singles that come together to form their best album in over a decade.
Since the release of their self-titled debut in 2001, Gorillaz have been one of the most inventive and experimental groups in the modern pop landscape. The virtual band, created by ex-Blur frontman Damon Albarn and animator Jamie Hewlett, have spent the better part of two decades amassing an impressive discography including a long list of diverse, genre-blending collaborations. While every outing hasn’t been remarkable, Albarn’s exploration of genres has always been admirable, and extremely enjoyable, as is the case here.
With Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez, Albarn has come through with the band’s most sonically cohesive album in over a decade. Juggling a list of guests that includes Sir Elton John, The Cure’s Robert Smith, Kano and ScHoolboy Q, the album manages to never feel disjointed in the way that some past Gorillaz releases have. Having all of these different voices from different genres could have resulted in a jumbled mess, with Albarn moulding his sound to fit each different artist, but instead he’s had them all step into the world of Gorillaz.
Los Angeles rapper and TDE standout ScHoolboy Q appears on “Pac-Man” and completely steals the show with two incredible verses, laid over a constantly evolving instrumental laced with sound effects from the titular game.
The excellent “Aries” features Georgia and legendary Joy Division and New Order bassist Peter Hook. The track showcases the Gorillaz collaborative adaptability at its best, toeing the line between being a fantastic Gorillaz song and an excellent New Order song. Albarn’s vocals float freely over Hook’s infectious bass riffs in a way that invokes Bernard Sumner’s vocal mannerisms without sounding like a complete rip-off.
Even Song Machine’s most unexpected collaborations bear incredible results. “The Pink Phantom” features Elton John and Atlanta R&B staple 6LACK and is an extremely melancholic track. Backed by a silky, smooth lead piano riff and dreamy synths, the pair join Albarn in telling tales about giving somebody their all, only to end up heartbroken in the end.
The only negative that could be levied against this album is that 9 of the 11 songs on the album (17 on the deluxe), were released as singles throughout 2020, so it feels less fresh. While some may feel this way, it shouldn’t take away from how fantastic the music actually is. Even on the longer deluxe version, there is never really a moment that stands out as a “skip.”
For what is mostly a collection of singles, these songs come together with a sense of cohesion that the band haven’t achieved in some time, even with its extremely eclectic guest list. It may not scratch the itch of Gorillaz fans looking for a more concept-driven or thematic album like 2010’s Plastic Beach, but it’s still a truly remarkable record in its own right.
Trial Track: Aries (feat. Peter Hook & Georgia)