Now on their fourth album since coming back after a 7-year gap with Humanz, the digital band masterminded by expert collaborator Damon Albarn is still running the Gorillaz renaissance smoothly. While the quality might have peaked with the outstanding and truly underappreciated Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez in 2020 (where’s season two?), their latest effort Cracker Island is a brief 10 tracks, features guests as diverse as Stevie Nicks, Bad Bunny and Thundercat, and recruits superproducer Greg Kurstin on every track to help them lean into an engaging synth-funk sound that shows Albarn adding his own spin to the trends of the day. Of course, there’s an overarching theme as well – while the album’s title might help you look a little deeper, the dedicated, blue-haired cartoon frontman 2-D has a lot to say about some kind of technological cult that has people becoming slaves to their screens (and whatever misinformation might be on them). On whatever level you choose to receive everything that’s going on here, one thing is undeniable: Gorillaz are still consistently putting out intricate and danceable quality music.
The project opens with its title track – a song that I already put on last year’s year-end list, and for good reason. From the opening digitized, carnivalesque synths and Thundercat’s theatrical falsetto bellowing “forever cult” after each eerie line from Albarn, to the instrumental complexity and soloing at its conclusion, it’s an insane showing of musicianship. Thundercat’s basslines are, of course, a force to be reckoned with, and the strength of the track is just how much it builds more and more as it goes on, adding a mindboggling number of interlocking parts. The next track “Oil” is the one with Stevie Nicks, although I wish she had a little more space to shine on her own here – she basically just serves as a backing vocalist, and her classic tone, despite still adding some great harmonies, would have added a new dimension to the world of a Gorillaz track. With a lot more live instrumentation on this one to cater to Nicks’ driving, pop-rock wheelhouse, Albarn ends up contributing a lot of technological metaphors, trying to snap out of the trance and search for something real, through a more wistful and laid-back sound. It continues to set the tone thematically, but there are prettier melodies elsewhere on the project.
With all of the impressive guest vocalists on this project, the biggest get of all might appear on “The Tired Influencer” – it’s Siri herself. Offering a couple canned responses to Albarn’s lines over a twinkling cascade of synths and some genuinely twangy energy in the background, there’s something truly awe-inspiring about this track. Tapping into the mindset of someone who has made this cult their identity, “waiting for an answer,” there’s something incredible about the way Albarn has always been able to communicate so much emotion through a delivery that’s often quite subdued and understated. It’s the worn-out, hopeful quality he has, his voice crackling before diving into each line. The track “Silent Running” is just as well-executed, and while it’s the most radio-ready of the bunch here with a central synth hook that could have only come from a post-“Blinding Lights” world, the syncopation, instrumental complexity and true hook that is the whistled melody that crops up from time to time make it undeniably Gorillaz. Our narrator gets lost in the process of doomscrolling and disassociating, making it a great synthpop tune about a topical and underexplored subject in the sea of anti-technology sentiment.
The album’s biggest single actually ended up being “New Gold,” a track that Albarn is barely on at all, instead handing the reins over to Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker and The Pharcyde’s Bootie Brown, a frequent collaborator. With a time signature-bending hook from Parker that makes things all the more engaging (it sounds like it’s in 6/4, but it isn’t) and energetic rap verses, it all leads to an extended jam session that nicely marries the upbeat synth-funk of Gorillaz with the ethereal chilled-out nature of Tame Impala. “Baby Queen” is a bit of an odd interlude, but it certainly sounds appropriately dreamy as we get lost in Albarn’s head for a little bit – the track is apparently about a real experience he had when the then 14-year-old crown princess of Thailand crowd-surfed at a Blur show, inspired by a dream he had imagining her growing into her role as queen a quarter-decade later. “Tarantula,” on the other hand, is one of the funkiest tracks here. Albarn’s delivery is at its most starry-eyed and romantic as he seems to be addressing parasocial relationships, getting locked on a one-track mind and being willing to do whatever at a detriment to himself to achieve his aims. The most upbeat, happy and feel-good track here right down to the bright piano outro, there’s something a little sinister under the surface.
Quickly taking off in terms of its stream counts due to the presence of the world’s biggest artist, “Tormenta” sounds a little more like a Bad Bunny song than a Gorillaz one – which is by no means a bad thing. It feels like a bit of a diversion from everything that’s going on here, but with some of the band’s distinct tones coming through with the tropical-sounding chords, it’s still interesting to hear Bad Bunny join their world. “Skinny Ape” is a bit of a calmer song as Albarn looks to the future with a bit of a shrug and contemplating his influence as nothing more than a skinny ape. Apparently inspired by seeing an Amazon delivery robot, the track morphs into a sudden punk rock and ska-inspired breakdown before the wholesome and slightly anxious campfire song lullaby that is “Possession Island.” Ending things off with some emotional lyrics, acoustic guitars and piano from Albarn and Beck, the band leave it at this: “We’re all in this together, ‘til the end.”
Gorillaz’ ability to continue to reinvent themselves with every new guest that comes into the studio for the last couple of decades has been one of the music industry’s most fascinating projects to watch unfold, and we’re lucky to have it operating at such a high level for this long – even with some gaps in between. Onwards (I hope) to Song Machine Season 2!
Favourite Tracks: Cracker Island, Silent Running, Tarantula, The Tired Influencer, New Gold
Least Favourite Track: Oil