Album Review: Plastic Beach – Gorillaz

Posted: May 5, 2010 in Album Reviews, music
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Anything can wash up on “Plastic Beach” – ballads, ethereal soul, rock, R&B. There’s even a hip hop sea shanty that sounds like it could have been co-written by Gilbert and Sullivan. Gorillaz’ turn the flotsam and jetsam of musical styles into a label-defying whole that is, at its core, a pop album.

After the miniature overture, the album starts with a moderate-tempo, 60-ish R&B number built around what sounds like a Hammond organ that’s been run through a forward-moving time machine. Snoop Dogg shows you where this album’s center is by rapping the line, “The revolution will be televised”, giving it just the right phrasing and inflection to make it clear that it’s a quote and not a coincidence. With that one line he invokes social consciousness a la Gil Scott Heron. But there is no war or racial protest here. “Plastic Beach” deals with the more unifying themes of ecology and economics.

This is usually where the alarm bells start to ring, mainly because when music and social politics collide, the result is too often lyrically inane or musically boring, or both. That is so not the case here. The music is infectious, with a trawler full of hooks. The lyrics are, by turns, clear, clever, and sometimes enigmatic. And with an ensemble cast rivalling that of “Lost”, there are many diverse songs to sing.

Some of the teenagers in my house like this album as much as I do, which makes me smile and wonder whether Gorillaz pulled a fast one, a group of cartoon characters acting as the public face of an album on which the young people are middle aged and the elders are, well, pretty darn old. I mean, Lou Reed, half the Clash, Mark E Smith from the Fall… I have to refer my son to the opening credit sequence of Tarentino’s “Jackie Brown” to explain who Bobby Womack is.

Unlike many albums, the singles give you a good idea of what you can expect. “Stylo”, the first single, is a perfect example of the style mashing that goes on in this album, going from Mos Def’s rhymes to a Damon Albarn pop verse to Bobby Womack’s stream-of consciousness soul raving, and back around again, all to a beat you can dance to. Lyrically, it seems to have something to do with electricity.

On the other hand, “Superfast Jellyfish”, the next single, is a light-hearted, well-realized ensemble send up of commercially available breakfast choices which may or may not be actually edible. “On melancholy Hill”, is a straight-up pop song that would sound at home on a Blur album, if there were ever a new one.

Even more than its predecessors, “Plastic Beach” sounds like it was made by experienced artists who are relaxed and confident in their abilities. This album lets the music work on you slowly. At first listen it seems pleasant, if simple. With repeated listening it becomes “Plastic Beach” reveals itself to be Gorillaz best album yet. Maybe even Albarn’s. Despite being cartoons, Gorillaz have grown up.

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