Gorillaz' fifth album was intended to be a dystopian fiction. Damon Albarn envisioned a future in which America would suffer a disaster so seismic that the only possible response would be the party to end all parties. On November 8th 2016 said imagined event became reality, leaving Albarn and co-creator Jamie Hewlett in the perfect position to provide the apocalyptic party they’d dreamt up.
Despite current events catching up with it, 'Humanz' is still very much future-minded. Its sci-fi approach encourages Albarn to ditch any leftover acoustic instrumentation in favour of keyboards, synthesised drums, iPad instruments and vocals, making it in many ways the more energetic little brother of last release 'The Fall' (which Albarn recorded solely on his iPad when touring 'Plastic Beach') and deservedly elevating that under-appreciated record's importance in Gorillaz' studio discography in the process.
This running theme, keeping your eyes fixed on a more positive future in the face of encroaching disaster, also informs 'Humanz'' extensive guestlist. Over Gorillaz' 16-year existence Albarn has become something of a pop music Tarantino, known for breathing new life into the careers of washed up musicians such as Shaun Ryder and Bobby Womack. This time round he's changed tack to collaborate mainly with younger artists like Danny Brown, Popcaan and Zebra Katz who have emerged over the past ten years (though old hands Grace Jones, Mavis Staples and returning auxiliaries De La Soul are given plenty of space to shine).
A side-effect of this shift is a far greater contingent of the female voices that previous albums sorely lacked ('Demon Days' featured three major female guests, 'Plastic Beach' just one and 'Gorillaz' none at all). Kelela completely steals 'Submission' from Danny Brown and Savages' Jenny Beth captures lightning in a bottle on overcharged closer 'We Got The Power'. Given that the record is basically one long anti-Trump celebration, it's only right that Albarn avoids another all-out sausage party.
Some of the new sounds present in Gorillaz' familiar minor-key pop can feel jarring the first time round, especially the arrival of dancehall prince Popcaan's auto-tuned patois on the nebulous 'Saturz Barz'. But Gorillaz wouldn't be Gorillaz unless they were exposing their incredibly broad fanbase to whole new musical horizons (how many hip-hop haters did 'Demon Days' transform into Danger Doom acolytes overnight?) and such moments quickly reveal themselves as highlights of this innovative record.
Much has been made of the album's 20-track length but, given the inclusion of six pretty pointless interludes, it could actually have been much longer. The sheer number of collaborators could also be seen as excessive if it weren't for the overarching house party vibe. One gripe, however, is the extraction of Hewlett's characters from the album's DNA. Ever since Albarn started performing its material with a straightforward live band, Gorillaz has been gradually transforming into a product of these titular Humans. Maybe it's just Albarn's rare employment of his old '2D'-style vocals on 'Charger' that's made me nostalgic for their more gimmicky days, but the further Murdoch, 2D, Noodle and Russell are consigned to Gorillaz' PR wing, the less unique the whole affair seems.
Despite this, Gorillaz most corporeal foray into the real world yet is a resounding success. Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett are now in their late forties and have overseen five albums together, so they would be forgiven if their little early-‘00s multimedia project for getting a little stale by now. Instead they have created their most youthful album yet; a vibrant record which paints a picture of the near future so vivid it seems convincingly real. In the long run this could be the album's downfall; it would not be a surprise if it dates more quickly than 'Demon Days' or 'Plastic Beach'. But, right now, 'Humanz' sounds exactly like tomorrow coming today.
Words: Josh Gray
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