Gorillaz have always been conceptually diverse, whether they are confronting personal demons on 2005’s Demon Days, musing on environmentalism with Plastic Beach or genre hopping on their self titled debut, there has always been the feeling that they know exactly what they are trying to say. Humanz, the virtual band’s fifth full-length effort (that’s if you include 2010’s iPad recorded fan club Christmas release, The Fall) is no different with tangible frontman Damon Albarn and band-penning artist Jamie Hewlett crafting an ‘emotional response to politics’ with the primary concept being the fallout of an unexpected Earth shattering event (wink, wink, nudge, nudge). With seven years since the group graced the airwaves expectations were understandably stratospheric and Humanz does indeed deliver the biggest surprise of 2017 thus far: a mediocre Gorillaz album.
The record gives the impression of a dystopian dance party with over twenty features from Michigan-based rapper Danny Brown to Jehnny Beth of Savages fame reflecting upon a world falling apart via colourful melodies and Sonic the Hedgehog circa 1991 style arrangements. Albarn is first and foremost a collaborator with projects prior to 2010’s The Fall ranging from Afrobeat supergroup Rocket Juice & the Moon to wonder.land, a musical inspired by Alice in Wonderland with the Gorillaz themselves being no strangers to working alongside other artists but on Humanz something doesn’t quite fit. Whereas previous albums seamlessly drifted in out of collaborators, here the features hit you like a freight train leaving a sparse amount of breathing room for Albarn to come and deliver his two cents. The result is an LP that has so many personalities that it somehow lacks any definable personality. Hewlett’s artwork is better than ever and yet you have never felt more disconnected from fictional band members 2D, Murdoc, Noodle and Russell.
That’s not to say on their own the tracks don’t work, ‘Ascension’ is a particular highlight with Californian rapper Vince Staples conquering racism and police brutality over an apocalypse-tinged instrumental whilst the synthpop tribute to Colchester nightclub, ‘Andromeda’, finger paints its way across an LP that had the potential to be devoid of colour. Elsewhere De La Soul put in their time on ‘Momentz’, a glitch-hop banger that laments lost time with misleading enthusiasm and Columbian singer-songwriter Kali Uchis joins Albarn on ‘She’s My Collar’ in one of the album’s finest collaborations, although comparisons are immediately drawn to Plastic Beach’s superior Little Dragon duet, ‘Empire Ants.’ The delicate ‘Busted and Blue’ stands out as the only song devoid of features while Mercury Prize winning poet Benjamin Clementine graces ‘Hallelujah Money’ with a divine eeriness and potentially one of the LP’s most experimentally beguiling moments.
Despite the superiority of some tunes the record just doesn’t quite meld together with only the odd interlude preventing it from resembling a well-compiled playlist. Clocking in at 26 tracks on the deluxe edition (also known as a cynical attempt at a money grab edition) Humanz is far longer than it ever should have been. Tracks such as ‘Sex Murder Party’ feel completely redundant and let’s be honest, ‘We Got the Power’ is just plain shit. Tonally the track is jarring, striking similarities to beige chart topper James Newman and also featuring superfluous background vocals by Noel Gallagher that lend nothing to the song other than the inevitable headlines: ‘OMG BRITPOP RIVALS BROUGHT TOGETHER AT LAST BY CARTOONZ!!’
Before the album’s release Gorillaz teased seven singles and unfortunately these tracks are all that Humanz has to offer with the finished product bringing little in the way of revelations. As Tobias Fünke from Arrested Development once said unironically ‘I’m afraid I prematurely shot my wad.’ Gorillaz aren’t just a band, each album cycle is a multimedia project that usually comprises huge rosters of stars and talent which is why it is so surprising that their latest feels so underwhelming. The record isn’t bad by any stretch it just isn’t good enough.
Written by: Matthew Barnard