Damon Albarn has a lot on his mind. Since co-founding the “virtual band” Gorillaz in 1999 with artist Jamie Hewlett, he has demonstrated an acute sense of lyrical anxiety. Each of the project’s past four albums have made it clear that the world was ending somehow. “Demon Days,” their most celebrated album, included songs about gun culture and modern herd mentality. Even the more cheerful “Plastic Beach,” which ditched dark synth jams in favor of artful pop, has an undercurrent of melancholy.
Albarn, who acts as the primary vocalist and mega-producer, continues this trend on “Humanz,” the first Gorillaz album in seven years. Less of a coherent project and more a disjointed dystopian mixtape, it features a wide range of guest stars across its 14 tracks. Vince Staples, De La Soul, Jamaican singer Grace Jones and others are all present, making the whole affair feel like the VIP section at an end-of-the-world dance party.
“Humanz’s” length and wealth of talent gives Albarn plenty of opportunities to expand his range as a producer, but his efforts are rarely successful. Most tracks are built around pulsing, busy beats that leave guest artists with little room to breathe. While sonically interesting, these songs try to do too much. On “Ascension,” Vince Staples fails to make his way through Albarn’s borderline schizophrenic production, and Popcaan’s joyful feature gets wasted on the plodding jam “Saturnz Barz.”
But there are highlights. Danny Brown shines on “Submission,” mostly thanks to his ability to turn even the strangest material into hits. Pusha T and Mavis Staples help an otherwise unremarkable “Let Me Out” to decency, and “Andromeda” creates a fascinating palette by combining harmonies from D.R.A.M. with a buzzing synth.
“Humanz’s” largest problem lies both in Albarn’s phoned-in lyricism and vague political messaging. Despite the tracklist reaching close to an hour in length, Albarn refuses to write specifically about what’s bothering him. The album references the degradation of society from different angles, but won’t go deeper other than to say, “Things are fucked up, man.” It’s a trend present on every album in the Gorillaz discography, and it makes for unremarkable and even dull listening.
In fact, Albarn took extraordinary measures to ensure his message was never too on-the-nose. While recording, he asked each of his collaborators to envision an insane world in which Donald Trump won the presidency. The imagined scenario helped inspire feelings of political despair. But when the unthinkable actually occurred, Albarn painstakingly edited every Trump reference out of the album.
The decision is bizarre. With no way to apply the album’s apocalyptic imagery to a real event, the whole affair feels deeply inconsequential. Why should an audience care about the sky falling when there’s nothing palpable at stake? Instead of painting a disturbing portrait of the world on the brink, “Humanz” feels like a collection of messages crazily scrawled on a cardboard sign.
All of this adds up to a highly anticipated album that can’t reach the heights it intends. Despite a few shining moments amid the muck, “Humanz” is far from a successful comeback. Instead, it only points to how little Gorillaz have left to say after four albums. Albarn has written extensively about the end of times. Now that his nightmare has partially come true, he doesn’t seem to have much to say.
Follow Dana on Twitter: @alstondalston