As consumers of art, one of the issues we often face is how much stock to put in the artist when evaluating their works. Especially today, when many works of art comment upon a world that’s growing volatile in many respects, an artist’s personal identity becomes undeniably intertwined with their message.
The matter of a band’s identity grows complicated when it’s composed entirely of cartoon characters, however. The musical and visual brainchild of Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett, respectively, virtual band Gorillaz has returned after five years of silence with a new album that candidly comments upon today’s sociopolitical landscape. Ironically, the blazing new album is titled Humanz.
Or perhaps it’s not so ironic — formed just shy of the turn of the century, Gorillaz is now 19 years old, and like any teenager, it seems now to have a mind of its own. The fictitious band members, once vague caricatures, have since evolved to the point that they are now beloved denizens of popular media, delivering interviews and even a very entertaining Reddit AMA to generate hype around their new album. Through the near two decades of their existence, irreverent bassist Murdoc, kind but dimwitted vocalist 2-D, enigmatic guitar virtuoso Noodle and strong-silent-type drummer Russ have become real enough to garner a considerable fanbase independent from that of Albarn and Hewlett. Even with the fantastical elements of Gorillaz lore, the now fully fleshed-out characters ground the narrative and make the raw emotion throughout Humanz that much more convincing.
Humanz plays out like the soundtrack for a vivid fever dream, equal parts desperate, desolate, frenzied and rapturous. Much more tangible than the last big Gorillaz album — the almost operatic Plastic Beach — Humanz feels eerily fitting in today’s tumultuous world. Extrapolating the album to the American political climate wouldn’t be a reach — in Albarn’s own words, it is “unashamedly about America.”
Albarn and his many collaborators never aimed to shy away from their overt message. In the very first release from Humanz, “Hallelujah Money,” Benjamin Clementine’s tremulous baritone delivers concretely political and apocalyptic themes; the track came out on the eve of Donald Trump’s inauguration. From the earliest whispers of its existence, Humanz has been political, and the range of emotions in its execution is a hallmark of its frankness.
Gorillaz projects have always thrived on collaboration, and Humanz features more guest features than any previous album, from D.R.A.M. to De La Soul to Grace Jones and even Albarn’s alleged former adversary Noel Gallagher. In fact, there’s only one full track without any collaborators — “Busted and Blue,” a gentle lament amidst an uproarious Armageddon. Through much of the record, Albarn’s usually prominent vocals as lead singer 2-D flicker in and out, taking a respectful backseat to the green and decorated collaborators alike.
Although every featured voice is essential to creating what is essentially a collage of emotions about the here and now, the gargantuan list of varied artists and styles at times undermines Humanz as a sonically cohesive record. Even after several run-throughs, it can still be difficult to reconcile a rollicking, psychedelic dancehall track (“Saturnz Barz,” with Popcaan) inhabiting the same space as an artful hip-hop duet about sacrifices that must be made in the age of Trump (“Let Me Out,” with Pusha T and Mavis Staples). Even with the album’s poignant message so thickly woven into the fabric of Humanz, the effort that goes into reconciling such disparate tones sometimes detracts from it.
Regardless of genre clashes, an underlying danceable pulse draws together the loose ends of Humanz. Even the minimalistic “Andromeda,” largely the mellowest track of the album, pops with lively bass. At a surface level, it perhaps seems wrong to celebrate and dance as the world around us goes up in flames. Really though, the energy that bounces throughout Humanz is the artistic manifestation of its contributors’ political passions, and its intoxicating rhythms are the basis of its power.