Sure, it’s a nice gimmick, but the coy anonymity that defines the Gorillaz project cuts both ways.
The bandmembers’ artificial personas might be a smart jab at our collective fascination with musicians rather than the music they make, but they’re also accidental commentary on the group’s lack of musical identity. Gorillaz don’t really sound like anything in particular: the word is just a catchall term slapped onto Damon Albarn’s pop experiments, a way of describing a collection of loveable mutts that don’t belong to any one discernible breed.
In the past, that omnivorous intent has worked to the group’s favour; Plastic Beach, an honest to god masterpiece, drew incredible strength from its everything-but-the-kitchen-sink attitude to pop songwriting. Yet on Humanz, the approach leaves Gorillaz seeming desperately soulless. The album doesn’t belong to them (okay, not “them” – Albarn) as much as it belongs to its impressive set of guest vocalists, and stellar performances from Danny Brown, De La Soul and Vince Staples frequently render Gorillaz about as essential as a session band.
Indeed, the record’s least memorable tracks are the ones on which Albarn takes centre stage. ‘Busted And Blue’, a brittle-boned pop/R&B hybrid, leaves barely anything in its wake, while tracks like ‘Andromeda’ and ‘Carnival’ make embarrassingly sparing use of their guest vocalists – D.R.A.M and Anthony Hamilton respectively.
Oh, and the less that gets said about the album’s dismal “narration” the better. News that Humanz would be dotted with spoken word tracks voiced by Ben Mendelsohn got the internet’s heart all in a flutter for nothing, it seems; the dull asides don’t add a thing to the proceedings. Though the Australian actor is as charismatic as ever, he mostly mumbles nonsense, and his role largely appears to provide padding.
Padding being the last thing that Humanz needs. At 20 tracks long, the record distinctly overstays its welcome, meandering through tracks that sometimes feel about as well-formed as demos. Perhaps if the thing was snipped down to EP size it might impress more, but in its present form it feels bloated and aimless, with tracks like the Mavis Staples-starring ‘Let Me Out’ barely even registering.
The worst, however, is definitively saved for last. ‘We Got The Power’, the album closer, is the most embarrassing song released by a band signed to a major label in the last five years. What with its horrendous vocal performance – Jehnny Beth of Savages, sounding distinctly uncomfortable – and inane lyrics, it is the very definition of the word “unbearable”. It stinks. It stinks like something deeply, spiritually rotten, and its lingering aroma hangs about for some time after Humanz is done.
Which is a shame, because despite the record’s many, many failings, there are occasional flashes of gold to be found here and there. ‘She’s My Collar’ is the group’s best song since ‘Glitter Freeze’, all cooed choruses and treacly, insidious melodies. Elsewhere, ‘Hallelujah Money’, although essentially little more than a showcase for the woefully underrated Benjamin Clementine, is truly impressive, while Vince Staples imbues ‘Ascension’ with his own distinct rhythm.
But even with these scattered pleasures, Humanz is not the record fans have been patiently waiting seven long years for. It’s not even really a record. It’s just a lazily concocted, sleepy assemblage of B-sides, distracting for exactly the length of its running time and not a second longer.
You could put this thing on and not even realise you’d pressed play. You could spin it for friends and tell ‘em it was recorded by some nobody you’d stumbled across on SoundCloud – and they’d believe you. And you could have dreamt this album, made it up in your head while waiting for the release of what should have been the infinitely better real thing. Triumphant return this ain’t.
Gorillaz’ Humanz is out this Friday April 28 through Warner Music, and can be pre-ordered here.