With today’s online debut of Plastic Beach Damon Albarn has given the world an album that tripped-out stoners, pro-primitives, and environmentalists alike can all appreciate, synthesizing the warm and welcoming nature of past Gorillaz work with a new emphasis on pop appeal. There’s nothing as immediately satisfying as “Feel Good Inc.,” but a sense of depth lurks below that urges you to explore this strange little cartoon world further.
If you’re a fanatic who truly cares about resolving the story lines of fictional cartoon characters, then Plastic Beach should be massively enjoyable, but the album works perfectly well as an experience for the casual fan. Albarn cares a little too much about the weather and chintzy dry-spells can get tiring, but the 56-minute trip currently streaming at NPR is still worth the trip. After the jump, listen along while reading our track by track review of the album, and let us know what you think.
Orchestral Info (featuring Sinfonia ViVA)
It begins with waves crashing, seagulls squawking, and a foghorn steadily approaching. The culmination: Swelling war horns not unlike a Lord of the Rings battle cry.
Welcome to The World of Plastic Beach (feat. Snoop Dogg and Hypnotic Brass Ensemble)
It’s fitting that Snoop should extol a lazy welcome over glue-huffing drums and lumpy bass, ping-ponging between poles as you moor on Plastic Beach. Snoop barely is able to maintain a credible flow, relying on the retro vibe supplemented by Albarn’s background vocals. Lumpy laughs mix with whine that modulates higher and higher until all that’s left is Snoop-a-loopy.
White Flag (feat. Kano, Blasty, and the Lebanese National Orchestra for Oriental Arabic Music)
Middle Eastern flute vibes and hand drum rolls dominate, along with pizzicato plucks that aerate the song. There’s a dash of spy thriller intrigue, jump-cutting from ballroom dancing with a double agent to running over rooftops in a tuxedo. The song morphs into a rule-enforcing rap: “Respect the island no stealing/and don’t bring religion here, no freaking.” There’s light bass, a travelogue photo diary unencumbered by heavy feelings
The first lead vocal from Albarn is a codeine-infused jam, dreamy and muffled dripping downwards with bleeps and synths galore. Syynthesizers dominate this album far more so than the orchestral influence found in Gorillaz past work, perhaps a reflection of Albarn writing a more “pop” album. Drums lag so much they threaten to grind entirely to a halt, with Albarn emoting about rain falling like rhinestones from the sky
Stylo (feat. Bobby Womack and Mos Def)
This version of Stylo is a grooving night on the roller rink, shaking static over whirring wheels and sweat. Synth swells fight with quietly tinkling bells, but the retro feel gets shticky when the bass groove softens beyond droopiness. Even if the song is a bit cheesy, Bobby Womack sounds fantastic, his croon exploding over the chorus, gruff and powerful.
Superfast Jellyfish (feat. Gruff Rhys and De La Soul)
Apparently, Damon Albarn wanted to include a Spongebob Squarepants commercial. Shuddering bass underlines goofy rhymes from De La Soul making fun of fast food culture and “plastic” food, juxtaposed with a commercial for a microwave breakfast. The flow is effortless, mocking crap packaging and a need for speed, with a slightly annoying chorus that nonetheless worms into your head.
Empire Ants (feat. Little Dragon)
After the grating jellyfish is welcome guitar calm and rippling synths, like swimming a a pure, crystalline cistern. The song is stereotypically hazy but evolves into a monster glittering groove, with synths that trickle and drip like honey. As for the bass, it’s all surface skronk but no chest rumble, unlike the bass-face inducing lines of many past Gorillaz tracks.
Glitter Freeze (feat. Mark E. Smith)
“Glitter Freeze” starts with a off-base defibrillator beat, with bass downtuned and gurgling in an amazingly cool way. Laser synths shoot randomly, a battle erupting. The Glitter Freeze, assuming it’s the depiction of a “real” event in the cartoon world, sounds like the American Revolution fought with glitter canons and streamer guns, an ’80s throwback that could be the soundtrack for an old Miami Vice club scene.
Some Kind of Nature (feat. Lou Reed)
The lyrics are ostensibly inspirational, a man surveying his available materials as a scavenger attempting to make the best of what’s left in his world. Lou Reeds vocal contribution is completely nonthreatening, but you expect more than a chintzy drum machine and piano straight from the jazz hall.
On Melancholy Hill
Well made and flowing, with accents of light synth licks, this slice of straightforward melancholy is just kind of boring, crippled by more ’80s drum sounds. Synths permeate everything, but not necessarily in a good way.
Once again, we have heavily layered synths howling at the moon, doleful and tired-eyed. Like the majority of the album, you’ll find yourself unwittingly toe-tapping through the song even as you think to yourself that it’s kind of annoying. There are some more post civilization lyrics: “Distant stars/coming black or red/ I’ve seen their worlds/inside my head/they connect with the fall of man.”
Sweepstakes (feat. Mos Def and Hypnotic Brass Ensemble)
Mos Def spits out a trippy flow that never seems to align with the beat, sounding like muffled church bells and madly tapping Morse Code. It’s just the kind of Gorillaz song that sucks you in with its idiosyncrasies to become an addictive listen. You tune in again and again, initially just trying to unravel the damn thing, and then it infects you. The horns section is shining brightly until mutating into another series of synth deterioration.
Plastic Beach (feat. Mick Jones and Paul Simonon)
The opening few bars contains a fantastic, spooky chord change, with an entrancing bass line. The lyrics “It’s a Casio on a Plastic Beach” basically sum up the entire album, musically and lyrically: devoid of the thick orchestral work of previous albums, Plastic Beach relies heavily on occasionally cheap-sounding drum machines while giving a strong indictment of the trappings of our modern culture. There are no uplifting gospel choruses here, just childlike pitch-shifted vocals
To Binge (feat. Little Dragon)
Little Dragon gives an inspired vocal performance, softly drifting over the island reggae feel as she addresses “someone to rely on as thunder comes rolling down.” It’s an easy slow sway with lyrics that echo suspicious love: “I’m caught again in the mystery/you’re by my side but are you still with me?”
Cloud of Unknowing (feat. Bobby Womack and sinfonia ViVA)
Hooray for more Bobby Womack! He glides effortlessly in and out of a frothy falsetto, giving the best vocal performance on the album. Seagulls are again circling the beach, sounding more threatening and ominous, with Womack acting almost like the voice of God, metaphorically and vocally: “Every satellite up here is watching/But I was here from the very start/flying to find a way to your heart. ” The lyrics are also the most heartfelt on the album, addressing oblique questions of God and whether the sun will rise into the next morning on this cloud of unknowing. As a threat approaches, you’re left with the lost days drifting out into an endless sea, “trying to find someone you never know.”
An ostensibly pirate-like travel aid emerges from the detritus, accompanied by malfunctioning boings and blip blop beeps. A sad sigh of a vocal lamenting how “we left the taps running for 100 years.” It’s preachy and less inspirational than the phenomenal eponymous album closer on Demon Days, but an environmentalists dream message, and interesting enough musically to make you disappointed when it barely lasts over two minutes