For all their faults, I still love Gorillaz. I've talked about my problems with the use of cartoons to showcase their songs before, but this time I'm going to be addressing the musicians behind the songs, Damon Albarn and Remi Kabaka Jr., directly.
Their newest album "Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez," which was released Oct. 23, is easily one of the strangest experiences I've had with Gorillaz. The album is doubling as a series of animated music videos, and the "Season One" in the title implies that they're going to eventually continue this, so it may be too early to judge, but what's here is kind of disappointing for reasons I didn't expect.
Every one of the 17 songs listed features a guest artist, oftentimes more than one. Gorillaz is no stranger to featuring guests on their tracks, since most of their best songs feature someone else. Songs such as "Feel Good Inc." or "Dirty Harry" or even "Clint Eastwood" wouldn't be as popular if they didn't feature De La Soul, Bootie Brown and Del the Funky Homosapien, respectively. But being said, they always made songs without guest artists, with the previous album "The Now Now" being almost exclusive to Albarn's vocals.
But this time around, it feels like Albarn and Kabaka are guests on their own tracks.
That criticism is nothing new. The album following their hiatus, "Humanz," featured Albarn’s vocals significantly less than previous works, but at the time I excused it because it felt more like they were showcasing their guests, letting them have their time on a track to make the song theirs. And it worked great! That album still has some of my favorite songs from the Gorillaz.
But this latest album, while definitely listenable, just doesn't feel quite right. Some tracks feature Albarn's vocals for only a few lines, and while others feature him more extensively, it's only for maybe half of the song. Not to mention, there's this constant filter on Albarn's voice that's been present for three albums now. He insists on giving his voice this staticky bitcrush effect, to the detriment of the songs in my opinion.
Still, we don't hear it that much — the spotlight is on the guest list this time around. From niche favorites such as JPEGMafia and Slowthai to the legends Elton John and Robert Smith, Albarn and Kabaka went all out sourcing singers and rappers for their songs. The guest singers are great, and meld perfectly with the production of Albarn and Kabaka. And that's what their role feels like in this album: producers.
Like I've said before, this isn't anything new. But the key difference is the 2017 album "Humanz" had "Ascension" with Vince Staples who raps about a party at the end of the world and "Let Me Out" with Pusha T expressing fear about police violence. “Strange Timez” doesn't have anything close to that.
More than three years later, I still regularly listen to "Humanz," but after a few days with "Strange Timez," I feel like I've heard enough. The songs aren't bad, but most of them don't have anything there worth going back to. "Pac-Man" is easily the strongest of the bunch, featuring Albarn's vocals much more than other songs while having a heavy dose of rap with Schoolboy Q. I did enjoy "The Pink Phantom" with Elton John, if only for John's verses.
Otherwise, the album is just fine. It's fine. Serviceable. Inoffensive. Well, from a technical standpoint it's actually quite good. Even if they're not center stage anymore, Albarn and Kabaka know how to make a good-sounding song, and they often use unique samples and effects to create their own soundscape. The lyric writing in the songs are decidedly obtuse but still thematically sound. An aspect I really enjoyed was the use of different languages throughout the album, with some parts in Japanese, French and even Xhosa. The guests who appeared often changed languages mid-song, and it somehow worked great.
But I think the effort to feature as many artists as they can on this album backfired. Gorillaz has always been a kind of curator of music, a way to introduce artists to a wider audience. I discovered my favorite rapper, Vince Staples, through their music, along with other artists I regularly listen to. In that vein, I've been looking into the guest artists on this album and leaving more satisfied with their individual work than I was with "Strange Timez." If Damon Albarn and Remi Kabaka Jr. aren't going to show up for their own album, I might as well listen to who did.