Damon Albarn takes a vocal backseat on latest Gorillaz release ‘Humanz’
It’s been a long time since we’ve heard anything from Gorillaz.
“Humanz” is the first record from the project since late 2010, and somehow those interim seven years make the buzz around the record seem like that of a comeback album, and not just an average project.
So, as the question always is with comeback records, how well do Gorillaz come back on “Humanz”?
The answer to that is complicated and depends on whether we’re talking about individual songs or the record as a whole.
But before we go into that, it might be worth recalling what exactly Gorillaz is. In the band’s mythology, it is comprised of a group of cartoon characters who, based on the band’s music videos, live either in a post-apocalyptic wasteland or a paradise of their own creation.
Here in the real world, Gorillaz is the project of Blur’s lead singer, Damon Albarn, and animator Jamie Hewlett. Besides Albarn’s musical influence, the rest of the group’s music is created by a revolving door of contributors, who have ranged from golden era rappers like Del tha Funkee Homosapien to punk rock icons like two members of the Clash and Lou Reed.
In this way, Gorillaz has always leaned heavily on the involvement of its featured artists. Albarn, who voices the band’s fictional lead singer, 2-D, remains a constant presence on Gorillaz records, but occassionally steps into the background to allow the featured artist to shine. Then, Albarn retakes his place as the star, returning sort of like the main theme of a jazz song that the band returns to after an exciting solo.
At least, that’s what Gorillaz used to do, especially on their landmark record, “Demon Days.”
On “Humanz,” Albarn no longer feels like the main theme that links together a series of collaborators.
With many of the tracks on the record only featuring backing vocals from Albarn, and some not having his vocals at all, “Humanz” stops feeling like a Gorillaz album in the way fans may be used to.
Instead, it takes on qualities of a playlist assembled by someone dedicated to finding songs by a rather eclectic group of artists that Damon Albarn just happens to be in.
In this way, “Humanz” feels quite a bit less put together as an album compared to some of Gorillaz’ previous albums.
However, while the songs may not be as strongly linked musically as they previously have been, the tracks share a lot of lyrical themes.
And the major lyrical theme that appears from track to track is a crippling unease.
In his verses on “Ascension,” the first main track after a brief intro, rapper Vince Staples spits bars about his unease regarding the violence he sees in the world, both close to him and afar.
In “Let Me Out,” Pusha T raps to his mother figure (who is played in the track by gospel singer Mavis Staples) about his unease regarding the end of the Obama administration and the beginning of the Trump regime, while Staples responds with the unease caused by her own mortality.
Danny Brown, who is just coming off his own anxiety-anthem album “Atrocity Exhibition,” raps on “Submission” on just about every topic that makes him uneasy.
Benjamin Clementine croons on “Hallelujah Money” about his unease regarding a seemingly global obsession with greed.
In this way, Gorillaz assembles a list of collaborators who, more so than on previous Gorillaz records, come from unique walks of life and have intriguing points about their unease in a time of political upheaval. And the album is undeniably political, despite Albarn’s weak attempts to de-politicize it by censoring Trump’s and Obama’s names on previously released singles that prominently featured them.
Despite the recurring unease on the record, the main album (not counting the six bonus tracks) ends on a high point: Jehnny Beth from Savages sings triumphantly with Albarn on “We Got the Power,” ending the record on a hopeful point, encouraging listeners to look to the future.
But not all tracks on the album have such a tight focus. “Sex Murder Party” stands out as a glaring low point, feeling almost like a joke that found its way into the tracklist, with the majority of its lyrics being nothing more than one of the three words in the title.
The occasional lack of focus on “Humanz” proves the record’s title to be true: Gorillaz, whoever that name represents, really are human. After all, isn’t it human nature to get distracted by a “Sex Murder Party,” even in the face of the extreme anxiety caused by our future?
Regardless, it is on the song-by-song basis that “Humanz” truly shines. It may not work together well as an album, thanks to Albarn taking a backseat, but if approached as a playlist to back the anxiety of modern life, “Humanz” is an incredible collection of songs.
Reach Patrick Kernan at 570-991-6119 or on Twitter @PatKernan
Runtime: 49:19 for standard, 68:55 for deluxe
Best tracks: “Ascension,” “Let Me Out”
Worst track: “Sex Murder Party”