If there’s one single benefit to the world that the Trump presidency has provided, it’s the fact that it has seemingly reignited Damon Albarn’s creative muscles in a major way. On virtual band Gorillaz’ third album in four years since taking an extended break for the better part of the decade, they once again take a lyrical deep dive into current events through a feature-heavy and genre-hopping set of tracks. The fact that Wikipedia lists six different genres, from rock to R&B to pop to hip-hop, underneath the album tells you all you need to know. The first in a new series that is apparently set to continue with yet another set of new tracks next year, Gorillaz seemingly predicted the “strange timez” we were heading into when they began dropping these monthly singles in January. In a press release, they noted the state of the “unknown” and “pure chaos” in the fast-moving world of today, playing off of that by staying in the studio, ready to create with new guests in order to respond to the events of the day at all times. It seems like the spontaneous nature might create a disjointed album, but this is easily Gorillaz’ best project since their return. Albarn’s ability to bring the best out of his guests and subsume disparate musical worlds under a central quirky, cartoonish and colourful Gorillaz sound over the course of these 11 tracks is a pretty incredible achievement.
The music video for the album’s opening track, “Strange Timez,” displays the band’s virtual frontman, 2D, standing on the moon and observing the Earth as images of the dystopian world of 2020 are reflected on the visor of his spacesuit. Not only that, the band recruited none other than The Cure’s Robert Smith to sing the hook as Albarn’s monotoned drone sends some lyrical shots at the incompetence of leaders all around the world. Opening on the sounds of skittering and arrhythmic detuned piano and pulsating bass notes straight out of a horror movie, it’s far from being one of the more musically engaging tracks here but it’s certainly an appropriately eerie introduction to what is to come. Honestly, if you were attempting to capture the sound of what we’re currently living through, it’d be tough to imagine doing much better. As the percussion kicks in harder, Smith’s wailing vocals embody the stress and panic we’re all feeling. After the cinematic intro, Albarn turns up the funky rhythms and careens listeners straight into what is honestly one of the best three-track runs of the entire year. The track “The Valley of the Pagans” features Beck, who gives up on the singing and gets back to his old style of deadpan pseudo-raps to take aim at the idealistic image of the vapid social media influencer that is seemingly the ultimate goal for so many these days.
Over a cheery and carnivalesque cavalcade of wailing synths and bouncy, filtered percussion, the two sing together in a jubilant falsetto about how good it feels to be perfect, the dark underbelly breaking through the cracks in a couple of terrifying lyrical asides. Beck’s sarcastic sneer and Albarn’s desensitized vocals are a perfect match as they get lost in an endless party with deadly consequences. Beck gets his best California accent on and mumbles “I’m on a cleanse” and “yeah, the hot tub is really chill” as the track winds down, an incredibly catchy and upbeat number that brilliantly criticizes those who would be dancing to it. “The Lost Chord” is a soulful piece of psychedelia that sees the group recruit UK singer Leee John for what ends up being the album’s most undeniable groove. Driven by a gorgeous interplay between a stuttering funk bassline and what sounds almost like a synth flute flittering around on the high ends, John’s passionate falsetto runs through some impressive vocal acrobatics, Albarn matching him on an ascendant and determined melody as they search frantically for an unidentified missing piece. Gradually, the distortion creeps in and swallows everything else as John sings “I wanna be free.” The whole track impressively works as both endlessly replayable banger and disorienting sound collage. Next comes “Pac-Man,” a scorching and percussion-heavy hip-hop track that incorporates sounds from the famous arcade game into the beat. After spiralling into nothingness, singing “I’m stressing out” as his vocals layer endlessly, Albarn hands the reigns over to the devilish snarl of ScHoolboy Q who jumps in with a gritty “How can I trust truth?” and adapts astonishingly well to the experimental world of Gorillaz with multiple flow switch-ups.
Where “Pac-Man” offered a couple bars about using something like a video game to distract us from reality, the next track “Chalk Tablet Towers” analyzes similar themes through some decidedly unhealthier coping mechanisms. Bringing the incredible St. Vincent on board, the two once again deliver a track with a party atmosphere with something more sinister in the mix, St. Vincent singing the central millennial whoop of a melody as the two explore the concept of depressing times giving people a desperate dependency on drugs and alcohol. It’s one of the only instances here where it feels like Gorillaz don’t completely master pulling off the juxtaposition of the tonal disconnect, the fizzy synth tones, hopeful twinge and breathy melodies from Albarn, and more straightforward instrumental make it sound more like a straight-up party track without the creepy elements lurking in the back than the others here. Nonetheless, it’s a lyrically powerful showcase that once again captures the uniqueness of the times we’re living through – it just feels like the least sonically experimental here, which is impressive, because it’s still pretty weird. Of course, Gorillaz still possess the ability to make an entertaining track when they’re not completely out there and paying homage to a style as well, like they do with the tracks “Aries” and “Dead Butterflies.” “Aries” recruits New Order and Joy Division mastermind Peter Hook, who slaps his immediately recognizable bass-heavy style, clearly incredibly influential to Albarn, on the track for some delightfully new wavey goodness. “Dead Butterflies” brings together UK rapper Kano, Spanish singer Roxani Arias and trap auteur Mike Will Made-It to bridge the Atlantic, Albarn trying his best to imagine a fully global style and grounding it with a despondent but instantly memorable chorus.
What is truly most impressive about this collection of tracks is the many times the sound leaps somewhere you’d never expect the group to go or pull off as well as they do, or they bring together two collaborators from completely different worlds, and still succeed at making everything come together in a cohesive way. As soon as the track “The Pink Phantom,” which features Elton John and 6lack, was announced, fans were already skeptical. Trust Albarn’s melodramatic piano chords to prove that the theatrical bluster of John and the Auto-crooned sadboi stylings of 6lack aren’t so different after all, both mourning the end of a relationship and complementing each other shockingly well as they show off two sides of the same coin. John’s wavering vocals sound like he’s trying not to cry, and 6lack’s dead-eyed tone sounds like he’s already all cried out. The track sounds like it belongs on Broadway, with incredibly believable performances all around as the somber instrumental shifts and changes to accommodate them. “Friday 13th” takes a completely unexpected and faithful turn into Jamaican electronica and dub, UK rapper Octavian completely vibing out on top with some laid-back bars. The track “Désolé” brings African dance star Fatoumata Diawara on board for a driving pop-rock track sung mostly in French, but it’s closer “Momentary Bliss” that really shows just how much Albarn knows how to use his guests. Bringing punk group Slaves and noted firestarter slowthai on board, slowthai finally gets to fully go all out on the disruptive punk energy he brings to his raps and fits right at home over a more abrasive guitar beat. It sounds like it comes from a completely different album, Albarn gleefully singing Beatles lyrics in the background as the track spirals out of control, but it sounds just as excellent as the rest.
These are Strange Timez indeed, and just as albums like thank u, next, Blonde or Ctrl perfectly captured the sound of the way society was moving in their respective years of release, this just might be that album for the complete madness that was 2020. Hopefully even if things calm down a little out there for 2021, Season Two of Song Machine is still just as interesting and dynamic.
Favourite Tracks: The Lost Chord, Pac-Man, The Pink Phantom, The Valley Of The Pagans, Momentary Bliss
Least Favourite Track: Chalk Tablet Towers