Damon Albarn sure has a funky, groovy id. It’s now been about twenty years since the frontman of Blue created a decidedly strange side project: an Archies for the then-looming new millennium. Working with comic book artist Jamie Hewlett, Albarn fashioned an animated quartet (comprised of lead vocalist and keyboardist 2-D, guitarist Noodle, bassist Murdoc Niccals, and drummer Russel Hobbs) that unleashed loose, lithe dance tracks. I don’t recall if Albarn ever explicitly noted that the “virtual band” was a means to more playful expression musically, but it definitely seemed that way to me, especially as Blur moved toward increasingly dense and ponderous material.
With Humanz — the fifth Gorillaz full-length and first in six years — my surmised mission statement seems a little more certain. The release is positioned as a party record for a world that is falling apart. Albarn looked at all the social mayhem brewing — such as the Brexit disaster in his home country and the even more appalling encore delivered by the good old U.S. of A.) and somehow decided if it had a good beat you could dance to it. The tracks on Humanz are rarely so explicit and literal that they play as protest songs for the disco. And yet there’s a misty dread that hovers over tracks like “Strobelite” and “Andromeda,” as if the computer beat was built out of the sounds of previously valued norms tumbling to the pavement.
Since it’s a party, Albarn was sure to assemble a hell of a guest list. Nearly every song boasts a familiar collaborator, though a surprising number become mere grains in the sonic woodwork. Grace Jones brings a welcome icy fierceness to “Charger,” and the divergent approaches of Mavis Staples and Pusha T stands as the main reason “Let Me Out” sparks like few others on the record. Elsewhere, it can get a shade too goofy, as is the case with “Sex Murder Party.” With its ambling beat and breathy chorus of unexpectedly-connected words, it sounds a little like Tracy Jordan’s “Werewolf Bar Mitzvah” from a darker, twistier timeline, even if I do like the way Jamie Principle’s vocal contribution carries the effortless, yearning drama that David Bowie perfected.
Some of the album strains even more painfully. Committing to the party album aesthetic necessarily means a certain amount of facile repetitiveness, but album closer “We Got the Power” veers dangerously close the kind of politicized anthem Black Eyed Peas might generate to prove just how woke they are. (That makes it a tremendous waste of guest vocalist Jehnny Beth, of the Savages.) Besides, the politics of Humanz are better when they’re a little more coy. By now, it should be clear that Gorillaz are most convincing when they let the beat stand as both the opening and closing argument.