Damon Albarn has been around the block a time or two. Frontman of Britpop ensemble Blur and mastermind behind virtual band Gorillaz, his career has spanned over three decades and has included its fair share of stylistic experimentation.
As his main project since the late 1990s, Gorillaz has settled into something of a groove. They combine a number of modes to create a sound that is mostly electronic with bits of hip-hop, punk and synth-pop thrown in.
Their newest release, “Cracker Island,” leans into the EDM aspects of their sound, resulting in a set of tracks that would sound at home in a bumping club, but may come across as incessant to the casual listener.
“Cracker Island” opens the album, reminiscent of the band’s earlier electronic work. Numerous synths overlap with punchy, thumping drums to create a dense, vibrant texture, but little variation in the rhythmic and melodic content causes it to stagnate pretty quickly.
I was excited to see Thundercat being featured on this song — but was sorely disappointed in the execution of his inclusion. His airy background vocals are a nice touch, but they too are detrimentally repetitive and his famous bass playing is almost never allowed to shine through.
Also on this album’s long list of notable features are Tame Impala and the Pharcyde’s Bootie Brown, appearing on “New Gold.” This track uses its featured artists in a more robust way, almost saving itself from becoming monotonous.
Tame Impala’s wide, echoing vocals fill out the background sporadically throughout, and Bootie Brown’s verses make the song’s first half the most interesting material thus far. Unfortunately, the latter half decides to forgo this strategy and becomes tedious.
Gorillaz have often turned to rappers to feature on their songs, much of the time to great effect. The constant variability of a rap verse contrasts nicely with Gorillaz’ consistent, riff-based compositions. This is never truer than here on “Cracker Island,” where the beats can become ceaseless in their repetition, which makes me wish they had utilized the rap idiom more thoroughly.
The sound changes dramatically for “Tormenta,” which features Bad Bunny. The influence of Gorillaz’ sound is minimal here; the song is basically reggaeton, with a dembow beat and Bad Bunny providing nearly all of the vocals.
It’s a decent reggaeton tune, albeit less intense than many examples of the genre. The instrumentals are mostly made up of a few overlapping drumbeats, with light electric piano in the background providing harmony. Interestingly, though reggaeton is known for its repeating beats, this song is among the least stagnant on the album.
In a 2021 interview, Albarn said the then-upcoming album would be influenced by Latin American music. A decent chunk of time passed between this statement and the album’s release, so it’s possible plans changed, but the Latin American influence is not apparent outside of “Tormenta.”
Considering this track is potentially the album’s best effort, it would’ve been nice to see more of this sound in the rest of it. As many styles of Latin music are known for their complex and shifting textures — particularly as far as percussion is concerned — this may have alleviated some of the monotony that pervades the record.
Despite these critiques, many of the songs on “Cracker Island” have their time and place. They sound as though they were meant to be blasted at a club, bar or other loud venue with the bass cranked up. I have no doubt that they’d get people’s feet moving in these settings, but they feel ill-fitted in the headphones of the everyday listener.
Repetitive beats and misplaced inspiration weigh “Cracker Island” down. Even the songs that showed great potential often felt overpromised and under-composed. Although the album undoubtedly has its audience, some dynamism would certainly make it more accessible.