Strange Timez is Gorillaz's best and most ambitious work in many years. Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett demonstrate once again that not only is their work more alive than ever, but that twenty years later they still find surprising ways to reinterpret and subvert the fundamental laws of the great music industry without losing freshness and validity as pop artists. Unusual mixtures of sounds, arrangements, languages and collaborators make the first season of Song Machine an album? at the height of any of its classics.
With the release of Humanz (2017), which ended a seven-year drought without studio albums, Gorillaz ushered in a new era in their project. Far were the video clips with interconnected stories, the web pages with flash minigames, the complex and difficult to follow lore of the characters, the strange separation between the animated band and the "impostors" that impersonated it live ... Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett's creature inaugurated this second stage of their career by highlighting a certain conflict of identity: should it only respond to the artistic impulses of its parents or be a collective and totalizing project?
Humanz undoubtedly advocated this second route, although the results may not have been perfect: marked by an overabundance of songs (twenty only in the standard edition) and collaborations, a production that, purely homogeneous, bordering on the excessive and an atmosphere that It tried to reconcile the apocalyptic and the partying, the fifth Gorillaz LP was in no man's land in more than one respect.
Albarn himself acknowledged that, in his enthusiasm for collaborating with artists (which on the other hand has always been a hallmark of the band), he "forgot" to include himself in Humanz's master lines , and his theme central, although obvious (Trump as the herald of an early apocalypse), was somewhat dissolved among so many elements to harmonize. Perhaps for this reason, Albarn and Hewlett worked almost alone on The Now Now (2018), recorded on a break from the tour of the previous LP in collaboration with James Ford (regular producer of Arctic Monkeys), an album of more modest dimensions and much sharper lines than its predecessor with featurings reduced to just two out of eleven tracks, Albarn had room to indulge in a fresh and colorful introspection that evoked sounds from the entire band's discography to give them new meanings.
The Now Now was not an album made in a hurry, but it was driven by a philosophy of thinking the right way and acting decisively, without overloading the songs, and for this reason it is easy to interpret it as Humanz's counterpart . What he lost in ambition he gained in coherence, variety and emotion something that both critics and the public applauded more unanimously than in the previous work and would undoubtedly lead the band to the methodology they have decided to follow with their new work.
Albarn and Hewlett were said to have intended to let the animated project sit for a reasonable amount of time, but the musician seemed to be on a creative streak (perhaps driven by that spirit of immediacy that The Now Now envisioned) and, like the workaholic, we know it to be, it didn't take long to recruit his fellow fatigue to start a new project, one that was intended to be more anarchic and spontaneous but that ended up taking different forms as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. So the world now has Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez (2020) before it, whatever that is, and it is well worth pausing for a moment to study what exactly this peculiarly ambitious work is.
To a large extent, Song Machine is a project that draws on what Damon Albarn tried to do in his day with a canceled project called Carousel, the germ of what we now know as Plastic Beach (2010). For that ambitious and unclassifiable (maybe too much) work, Albarn and Hewlett wanted to stop treating Murdoc, Russel, Noodle and 2-D as a band and pose them as the hosts of new projects in which they were not necessarily the protagonists.
This seventh album? it could be a second and more fruitful attempt to follow that same trajectory, as it was announced as a musical series presented by Gorillaz and divided into collaborative episodes that would be published without a marked periodicity. This musical section ended up incorporating a graphic novel, a radio program, the preparation of a film (it seems that this time it is for real) ... Things are already starting to get confusing, so we will focus our efforts on the album itself, including the songs of the special edition, not only because it is the one that appears in the streaming platforms but because Song Machine brings with it some of the best songs in the history of Gorillaz and I do not plan to leave even one.
If to the creative torrent of an Albarn happily confined to his country house in the first months of the pandemic we add his unflappable will to propose collaborations to colleagues or artists whom he admires (this is the first work of the animated band in which all the songs include the word "featuring") and that compositional mentality of not giving too many turns to songs with their own value, this Strange Timez combines the energy of Humanz and The Now Now in a unique and highly charged cocktail.
That the first season of Song Machine ended up becoming an LP is something that was not in the plans of its creators, who affirm that understanding it as an album is a different experience from everything that this project entails, but even so they are proud of the result: “It's [an album] very strong because each song has its own intention. Making a singles album is a tough undertaking because normally it's not what you do - but we have accidentally done it. "
" Strange Timez " is not only the title track of the album, but a way to contextualize the lyrical and musical ethos of these reinvigorated Gorillaz: dissonant keyboards, which evoke the most terrifying sounds of their early albums, flow into that dance club electronics that Albarn has been making his own in recent years, while his verbiage of apocalyptic images takes turns with the repetitive, but magnetic chorus of Robert Smith to summarize in his own way this 2020 in which the word "convulsed" has fallen short.
These times, even so, have not watered down the party for certain people who live in their parallel reality, and that is what “ The Valley of the Pagans ” is about, where Albarn and an especially loquacious Beck fire an acid and lively critique of narcissism and the dissociation of high society. This fun and playful theme inaugurates a recurring habit in Strange Timez, where many songs have a catchy structure repeated almost in a loop but with dynamic alterations that never make it tiresome.
" The Lost Chord " slows down the pace but not the intensity: with their colorful introspection of changing arrangements, Albarn (at times possessed by Alex Turner) and Leee John, Albarn's childhood star at the head of the band Imagination, set up with their voices a seductive atmosphere a la Plastic Beach , in which analog instrumentation predominates and the piano announces the leading role it enjoys in this work.
The excellent “ PAC-MAN ” ticks all the boxes of the songs from that far-off Gorillaz : guitars, basses and synths well woven into a simple but groovy base , a contrast between the dark theme of the lyrics and the luminosity of the singing and an exceptional display of flow (this time by ScHoolboy Q). The production demonstrates that quality is not quantity, and maintains simplicity and freshness without losing the taste for breaks, bridges, spontaneous arrangements to make Song Machine songs into instant classics capable of putting our body in motion without pretend it.
“ Chalk Tablet Towers ” also looks at the band's third album, as the duet with St. Vincent (which would well deserve more space on the subject) in a song about drug use suggests the iconic “To Binge” with Yukimi Nagano, but also The Now Now , with its predominance of sweet but melancholic electronics.
It is a sweet song with a lot of personality, but it is a bit shady when around the corner there is a monument like " The Pink Phantom ". Damon Albarn sits at the piano in a spectacular ballad that doesn't just overshadow Humanz's “Busted and Blue” musically speaking, but offers one of the best collaborations on the album and in Gorillaz history. Albarn, 6LACK and Elton John himself cross three different perspectives on nostalgia and love, but also glimpse three own melodies: in the last moments of the song, Sir Elton's vocal power meets the rapper's AutoTune and this, in turn, with the sleepy 2-D choruses, producing an unusual generational cocktail of textures difficult to imagine, but which Gorillaz continues to make possible twenty years later.
Approaching the final third of the base album (the first 11 songs), an introspective drift begins, inaugurated by “ Aries ”, where 2-D, accompanied by Georgia on percussion and Peter Hook (New Order) on bass, passes verses sleepy about dependence and isolation to a choreable and energetic refrain that, however, does not stop redounding in the synthetic melancholy of the cut.
“ Friday 13th ” combines heir to dancehall airs (mainly thanks to the collaboration of the young ragman Octavian) or dub, using the debut of primates, with the nostalgic synths of The Now Now and the luminous and minimalist piano of Everyday Robots , an instrument that plays a key role in the beautiful “ Dead Butterflies ”. In songs like these, it seems that Albarn finally has the space to recontextualize very personal techniques and textures (this song could well be on the tracklist of his solo debut) with artists who bring new meanings, such as san old friend Kano or a Roxani Arias for which there seem to be no previous musical references; perhaps Albarn, in his inscrutable designs, is discovering a future star.
Another of Strange Timez's highlights is “ Désolé, ” written in English, French and Bambara, the language of the Malian Fatoumata Diawara. His unclassifiable style (emotional orchestral strings, a bit of something that you can't tell if it's bossa nova or what but it sounds vintage, simple but memorable guitars, a portentous brass-wind section ...) would not come to amaze as much as it does not. It is due to his careful production, which manages to give prominence to each melodic line without taking it away from the 2-D voices and, especially, from the spectacular Diawara.
When we were still recovering from this, " Momentary Bliss ", the first episode of this unique adventure, closes this low stage (and Strange Timez himself) with a knock on the table as electrifying as an energy drink. In the company of the British punk duo Slaves and their colleague rapper slowthai, Albarn combines the cheap and ironic electronics of his debut with brutally effective guitars, an unpredictable and easy-going structure and a chorus that would have to be completely without blood in the veins not to shout in a pogo. An entire hymn that explodes shaking us by the shoulders because, as its lyrics say, it makes him sick to think that we are not happy in our own skin, reminding us that (as individuals, as a society, whatever) we deserve much more than this. In 2020, this phrase should not need further explanation.
Thanks to the peculiar structure of Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez and its non-disco nature, its bonus tracks are still songs made for the project and it would be a mistake to overlook them. As Albarn declared , with these songs something similar happens to what G-Sides and D-Sides did , their B-side compilation albums and discarded songs: they are not secondrate material, but a way of sharing how the process of recording has been creation of the album, which is especially important in this one.
“ Opium ”, the longest song on the LP with about seven minutes (although no one would say so), unfolds slowly but decisively, subtly exchanging textures around a central luminous melodic current, which is born from an electronic base to end in a closing with an air of Latin jazz, while Albarn takes turns on the mike with the duo EARTHGANG without losing kink for an instant.
Joan As Police Woman accompanies 2-D in a “ Simplicity ” that, due to the simplicity (heh) of its structure and the vagueness of its lyrics, evokes the old demos collected in GSides; something similar could be said of " Severed Head ", a kind of "Faust" resurrected in the Humanz style and more animated thanks to the help of Goldlink's flow, although the Unknown Mortal Orchestra section can be monotonous.
Much better luck runs “ With Love To An Ex ”, in which 2-D gives the microphone completely to a superb Moonlight Sanelly, who charges her verses with dark magnetism incorporating parts in Xhosa, her mother tongue. The straightforward but extremely high-pitched arrangements evoke the grim power of Demon Days and pair perfectly with Sanelly's lyrics, producing one of the best songs of the entire LP that would certainly deserve a prominent place on the tracklist.
With less pretensions, but not for that less quality, comes “ MLS ”, which summons the J-rock band CHAI and JPEGMAFIA to launch an unquestionable nod to goofy Gorillaz classics like “19- 2000” or “Slow Country” (the melodic and pounded guitar closeeaves no room for doubt).
Finally, back to that dark and magnetic terrain heir to the band's second album, “ How Far?” leaves us with another of the album's stellar moments. Skepta unstoppably shoots images over the masterful percussion of the recently deceased Tony Allen, key Afrobeat figure and close friend of Damon Albarn, with whom he worked on The Good, The Bad & The Queen. Of a song capable of condensing so many feelings about fame, life and death, so many styles and arrangements full of meaning, so many musical and emotional dynamics in less than three minutes, it can only be said that it is a masterpiece and, without any doubt, one of the best Gorillaz songs, which after twenty years seem more capable than ever of creating immortal music.
For many reasons, Strange Timez is Gorillaz's most ambitious album since Plastic Beach and undoubtedly his best work since that mammoth oeuvre. Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett once again demonstrate not only that their work is still more alive than ever, but that twenty years later they still find surprising ways to reinterpret and subvert the fundamental laws of the great music industry without losing freshness and validity as pop artists.
The first season of Song Machine , faithful to the concerns of an Albarn more careful than ever in making known the sounds that deserve the most admiration, generates great expectations about its continuation (which we know is already underway), but above all it has put the animated band firmly back on the radar with an album? which already occupies a place at the height of all its great classics. Repeat eavesdropping is not necessary to realize that, but from here we warn that they will surely take place.