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Gorillaz Throw A Dark Party For Dark Times On Much-Anticipated 'Humanz'

By Tankboy in Arts & Entertainment on Apr 28, 2017 1:55PM

Curtesy Gorillaz

Gorillaz has come a long way as a cultural phenomenon. Started as a side pop project by Blur frontman Damon Albarn and Tank Girl creator and artist Jamie Hewlett as an attempt to graft biting social commentary to a postmodern version of The Archies in 1998, the duo is probably just as surprised as everyone else that in 2017 that same “cartoon” group would be releasing one of the most anticipated albums of the year, Humanz.

After a 7-year hiatus since their last album, and given the current—shall we say, challenging—political climate, my own curiosity ran high on what Humanz’s themes would be. Albarn told the New York Times that he “always wanted to make a party record since I was a kid. So, I kind of juxtaposed that with this dark fantasy of what was going to happen in America. It was the idea of how can you make a really dark party record.”

If that was Albarn’s intent, then Humanz delivers on that aim from beginning to end. But in this situation, I think it’s important to take the notion of a “party album” with a grain of sand. You won’t be dancing the night away to Humanz, but it will make you want to move.

Structurally, Humanz feels more like a mixtape than a proper album. It’s a collection of flashing emotion and differing views, held together by Albarn’s solid instrumentation. Aside from a few guest musicians, Humanz differs from previous albums with Albarn handling almost all of the music and stepping away from the microphone. This creates a stable raft of sounds for the seemingly non-stop list of guest vocalists to deliver their lines over.

'Humanz' album cover
While previous Gorillaz albums might have taken several stylistic leaps within a single collection, Humanz charges ahead with a vibe that rarely varies. This takes a few listens to fully get used to, especially if you’re coming to this particular party expecting pop bliss. But once its dark charms are given room to shine brightly enough, and you can make out the intricacies within each song’s delivery, the album becomes deeply fulfilling.

Albarn told Billboard that some of the guest vocalist decisions were driven by an attempt to impress his young daughter, but I think you can take that phrase as more tongue in cheek than truth-baring. Each guest fits their song perfectly. And it's the blend of varying personalities coming together during the album's journey that gives Humanz much of its power.

Opening track “Ascension” features Vince Staples and, cliché as it sounds, truly sets the mood for what is to follow. The beats are 100% party; they are so much party that you may miss the verse Staples nails down as the song wraps up, “I'm just playing, baby, this the land of the free / Where you can get a Glock and a gram for the cheap / Where you can live your dreams long as you don't look like me / Be a puppet on a string, hanging from a f*cking tree.”

A dark party album indeed.

“Charger” features Grace Jones, and—as the title suggest—hurtles down dark pathways. Alban provides the core vocals that provide a deceptively hypnotic mantra as Jones’ vocals swirl and snarl with dark menace.

On “Let Me Out” Pusha T opens by asking his duet partner Mavis Staples a pretty straightforward question, “Mama Mavis, oh / Mama, they tried my patience / Obama is gone, who is left to save us?” Staples responds saying, “All the world is out of your hands/ You got to die a little if you wanna live / Change come to pass / You'd best be ready for it.” Her voice soothes, because who wouldn’t melt under Staples’ delivery, but her message is menacing. And this is also the only point of the album where the focus of much of this fear may be coming from, even if that dark point’s name is never once uttered at any point on Humanz.

But there are moments of lyrical hope amidst the frank statements about the current moment. In fact it's a song that focuses on being present in the now that offers a momentary break from the darker themes.

“Momentz" brings previous Gorillaz guests De La Soul in a few songs later. Bouncy beats and happy instrumentation buoys lyrics that proclaim the importance of embracing and appreciating the moment. It’s a welcome respite when it comes, but it’s immediately followed by a sample from Steve Martin’s “non-conformist oath” bit from his 1970s act, an acid reminder that people are all too ready to fall in line with groupthink without even realizing it. And we’re back in the midst of the dark party.

We bounce from wall to wall down a dark tunnel through the whole album, ending up in the mist of the penultimate song, “Hallelujah Money,” sung by Benjamin Clementine. All the previous emotions come to a head and the lyrics lead you to believe that we are screwed; power and money rule, and in the face of that, Clementine asks "How will we know? / When the morning comes / We are still human / How will we know? / How will we dream? / How will we love?"

Damon Albarn, photo by Jim Kopeny / Tankboy

The final song seeks to answer that question, and lift the weight of the dark party. When I first heard it, I wondered if it was simply a clichéd or cynical “Power To The People” update, but now I realize the reason I find myself humming the song to myself, at times without realizing it, is because it comes from a place of genuine optimism. The hope that people can realize that even inky bleakness can’t extinguish our potential as people.

“We Got the Power” launches with the cheerful group chant: “We got the power to be loving each other / No matter what happens, we've got the power to do that.” On one level, yeah, it’s simplistic. But the music soars with joy and optimism and you can feel Albarn striving to construct a beam of sonic light strong enough to burn away the fear and worry that’s laced much of the album to this point. While Savages’ Jehnny Beth provides vocals for the verses, Albarn teams up with D.R.A.M. and onetime rival Noel Gallagher to perform the choruses. It’s a sly wink, but there is the implication that if Albarn and Gallagher can find peace with each other, it’s not an impossible task for the rest of the world to do the same with that which troubles them.

Humanz isn’t an attempt to make sense of our current turbulent and troubled times, it’s an effort to reflect them. Humanz acknowledges our times are tough. But there is a solution that’s easy to sing along to, but difficult to turn into action. It's up to us to make that effort.

Humanz is out today, April 28.

Gorillaz will be on tour this summer and fall, and play Huntington Bank Pavilion at Northerly Island in Chicago on July 8