Life’s a Beach, and Then You Die
Collaboration is the name of the game for Gorillaz, the ever-changing virtual band fronted by cartoon characters and rooted to reality via Damon Albarn, the group’s creative director, singer, songwriter, and producer. Plastic Beach is the third album released under the Gorillaz moniker and goes beyond the previous two in bringing together a diverse assembly of artists, most notably Snoop Dogg, De La Soul, Mos Def, Bobby Womack, and Lou Reed. The Clash’s Mick Jones and Paul Simonen even make a rare, if subtle and un-Clash-like, appearance.
Plastic Beach moves through three acts: the first, dominated by guests and leaning on hip-hop beats and artists, presents the message (save the planet, live in peace, etc), and showcases Gorillaz’s wide grasp of influences. On “White Flag,” Bashy and Kano pronounce the album’s ethos over flute, hand drums, and strings courtesy of the National Orchestra for Arabic Music. A couple of tracks later on “Stylo,” an echo effect and synths create an 80’s vibe in cool contrast to the Mos Def’s warm lyrics and Bobby Womack’s intense soul delivery. The first act closes with humor as Gruff Rhys and De La Soul cleverly trade rhymes about how our food is not food, but “tastes just like chicken,” on “Superfast Jellyfish.”
The second act immerses Albarn in dreamier tracks that bring out acoustic, organic, and electronic sounds. “Empire Ants,” featuring Sweden’s Little Dragon, is a sleepy track that moves easily into the mostly instrumental, intergalactic “Glitter Freeze,” a danceable track ready for a club remix. Not surprisingly, Lou Reed’s cameo on “Some Kind of Nature” is the stand-out from this section. The rock legend brings his conversational vocal style to riff on the various connotations of plastic (chemicals, poisons, protection, phoniness, durability).
The energy level bounces back up thanks to Mos Def and the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble with “Sweepstakes,” the first song of the third act and possibly the only song to feature live drums. The in-your-backyard feel fades quickly and the electronic beat and eco-friendly message return front and center with title track. Featuring Clash members, the song brings a chill vibe and repetitive chants before dissolving into “To Binge,” which brings back Little Dragon for a song of lost love. The album resolves itself with another soulful Bobby Womack track, “Cloud of Unknowing,” and finally an Albarn solo with “Pirate Jet,” one last remark on wastefulness and plastic.
Plastic Beach is a well-crafted, engaging selection of artists and songs, if perhaps not as tightly sewn as previous records, both of which benefited from outside producers (Dan the Automator, Danger Mouse). It’s also not clear if any tracks will succeed as singles quite as well as previous hits “Clint Eastwood” and “Feel Good Inc,” as no song engenders the same instant catchiness. But while Blur can now be heard in a Michelob Ultra commercial, Plastic Beach is a terrific addition to the Gorillaz canon.