Music Reviews
Plastic Beach

Gorillaz Plastic Beach

(EMI) Rating - 10/10

Plastic Beach is just as good as the previous full-lengths by Damon Albarn's animated front for collaborations, Gorillaz.  The self-titled debut and follow-up Demon Days were both marked by a quality henceforth unheard in fake cartoon bands, and even more surprisingly stood up to re-listenings, aging surely into classics.  Plastic Beach marks the first time Albarn has produced Gorillaz at album length after yielding the boards to Automator and Danger Mouse on previous efforts.

Perhaps then it is not surprising that this is superficially the lightest, poppiest album yet for the collective (it is particularly sunnier than the pitch-black Demon Days).  Ironically, it lacks a chart-storming singalong such as Clint Eastwood or Feel Good Inc (whose guest stars De La Soul return here to clown their way through the microwave-meal-commercial-sampling Superfast Jellyfish).  Lead single Stylo is indeed great, however, with Bobby Womack and Mos Def elevating a credible Moroder driving synth line from Albarn.  Womack (who, like early Simpsons guest stars, was encouraged to work with Gorillaz by his daughter) offers arresting doomsday rants, briefly interrupted by Mos to provide some of those "step into action" verses, just like he did so well in I Against I, the anthem he and Massive Attack contributed to Blade II.

Both Def and Womack get their own additional showcases on the album.  On Sweepstakes, Mos nimbly and antsily skips over a twitchy glitch that builds into a woozy brass stomp courtesy of the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble.  Womack gets to showcase his yearning soul chops on Cloud of Unknowing.  A vague theme of a new landscape cobbled from consumer detritus accommodates this very collaborative effort and it's trademark eclecticism.

It seems appropriate that after after an aptly named Orchestral Intro, it is none other than Snoop Dogg to bid the listener Welcome to the World of the Plastic Beach.  Though he has built himself one of the more accomplished, consistent commercial rap discographies of the last decade, Snoop is still more known and lucrative as a Celebrity, a disposable, pre-packaged commodity.  Here he coasts above polished horn synths and a precise beat.  The album is schizophrenic in it's assemblage of hollow, scrub-cleaned elements into deceptively evergreen tapestries.

Of course this is still Albarn, so the whole thing is gorgeous and laced with melancholia, something he's the best at.  He sings more than ever here, and gives a nice side C passage over to resigned ballads.  Lou Reed steps into the old crank spot previously played by Dennis Hopper.  Reed actually gets to sing on Some Kind of Nature, and delivers a ditty better and more well suited to his crabby resignation than anything the man himself has done in years.  Albarn even finds a way to rein in Mark E. Smith for an effective pop song in Glitter Freeze.

Little Dragon provides effective pretty sadness backup on two tracks (particularly effective on Empire Ants), and Gruff Rhys sprinkles his own melodic whining to the De La track.  His involvement is fortuitous, as his classic Stainless Style with Boom Bip as Neon Neon similarly perfected a mix of rue and synthetic sheen.  The bright shining colors of the soundscape are attractive packaging to a land of diverting monuments built from consumer refuse.  The album here was cherry-picked from several collaborations for a more ambitious, never realized multi-media project called Carousel, much as the landmark Who's Next emerged from the ashes of Lifehouse.

The whole thing works beautifully, more with each listen.  Unless you're, say, The Beatles, Pink Floyd, or Outkast, very few artists are capable of more than three masterpieces in succession, within a decade.  Those that hit that mark are all-time greats, and Gorillaz have achieved the magic number.  

This begs the question of whether this fictional band now stands as pop royalty of their time.  Aside from their commendable mainstream popularity, even the misguided purists typically suspicious of overt gimmicks seem to concede an impressive quality to the catalog.  Myself, I'm fairly gimmick embracing, yet I still feel a bit silly considering an effort with cartoon avatars for such canonization.  Yet here we are, and I can't contrive a good argument against it.  In fact, considering the stellar album from supergroup The Good, The Bad, and The Queen, and Blur's under-heard, Coxon-less gem Think Tank, I'm seriously considering Damon Albarn as Pop MVP of the last decade or so.