Review: Plastic Beach – Gorillaz

GEORGE OSBORN falls in love with Albarn’s pitch perfect pop production

2D Bashy Bobby Womack Damon Albarn De La Soul George Osborn Gorillaz Gruff Rhys Kano Mos Def Murdoc Noodle Plastic Beach Russell

It has been nearly five years since the last Gorillaz album Demon Days came out amidst a massive wave of hype. In the resulting storm that followed, many proclaimed it an absolute classic built to last. But after a few listens it became apparent that while it was a good album, the claims to greatness were over the top. It contained some incredible singles, particularly DARE and the rip roaring Dirty Harry, but on the whole the album felt a bit confused. To me, it felt like a mutated Blur album with a reliance on guitars as a security measure that prevented those more exciting moments really exploding into something special.

However, the run up to Plastic Beach has felt different. Yes, the hype machine has been going a bit mental since Stylo was leaked, but the career path of Damon Albarn has suggested that the slight caution of Demon Days could be replaced with something genuinely exciting. His adventures into African music on Think Tank have been extensively followed through, the soundtrack to the Monkey Opera was a sublime work of art and the rediscovery of Blur has allowed him to focus his guitar energies somewhere else. Albarn, as a result, has become one of the most high profile and talented musicians in the country and the result is Plastic Beach: a pop masterpiece.

lastic Beach is a very loose concept album, but it’s a concept that is strong enough to string the entire record together as a wonderful catalogue of tracks. The front and back cover of the LP artwork sums up the change from Demon Days effectively. The darkness is gone, replaced by a bright, paradise like nautical theme which resonates throughout the album. Orchestral Intro sets the album up with a flowing motif establishing this new location, from seagull noises to lightly weighted strings, before building into a horn section that subsides into the opening track. Welcome to the World of the Plastic Beach, featuring the laid back Snoop Dogg delivery we’ve all learnt to love over the years, does what it says on the tin easing you into an album of pure pop music with a foretaste of what’s to come.

So far, so good. By the third track, however, it becomes apparent that this is an album out of the league of good. If you were just to read the back of the CD, the constituent parts of White Flag don’t add up obviously. Kano, Bashy and the National Orchestra for Arabic Music seem a bizarre mixture that really shouldn’t work. But it comes together fantastically. The electro beeps that provide the back drop for the lyrical dexterity mix effortlessly into the Arabic textures, in an outrageously ambitious move that produces an absolutely delightful track.  What’s even more incredible is that this isn’t even the most entrancing moment of audaciousness on the album. Superfast Jellyfish opens with a sample of an American cereal advert and the idea drives through the entire track. It’s a song about breakfast for goodness sake, but the humour of De La Soul and the beautiful pop vocals of Gruff Rhys make it one of the most joyously inventive pop songs of the last few years. It should be nonsense novelty but it becomes absolutely brilliant.

In fairness, Demon Days had this creativity but once the stand out tracks were removed the remainder of the album felt a tad flimsy as a record. Plastic Beach’s strength therefore is to meld this creativity into an album which feels complete. Stylo is a pulsating and threatening single with real verve, particularly Bobby Womack’s terrifying vocals, but the lighter moments on the album reveal the greatness. Plastic Beach picks up some great British pop traditions and revitalise them with a fresh sound. On Melancholy Hill has huge parallels to Belle and Sebastian’s Electronic Renaissance, Empire Ants echoes Little Boots recent release Stuck on Repeat and Some Kind of Nature reboots Lou Reed to great effect. But the link between three distinctly sounding styles of pop is that Plastic Beach picks up a traditional element within each song and runs it alongside some fresh. Whether it is effective rapping, fresh sounding electronic beats or samples, each track builds from the familiar to sound totally new. It’s an exhilarating listen and as it becomes obvious that the tracks successfully adapt around the concept, it’s hard not to think that this is an album that is masterfully built.

What else can I say really? Negatives are very few and far between. The long track listing is perhaps an area for criticism as a 16 track album isn’t great for a low attention spans and it isn’t exactly the most poignant album you’ll listen to in a long time. But not every album has to shake the earth and Plastic Beach revels in this delight. Like The Avalanches in 2001, Gorillaz really seem to care more about creating something truly celebratory than worrying about the big problems in the world. I normally prefer to keep all album reviews together in a short section, but this is an album that needs to be celebrated by itself. Revolutionary and yet comfortingly familiar, Plastic Beach is probably the front runner for album of the year already.