If you haven’t heard the music of GORILLAZ by now, you have to at least have heard of them. The multimedia project fronted by Blur singer Damon Albarn and Tank Girl creator Jamie Hewlett combined their minds to create an imaginary band, with a backstory full of enough zombies and vampires to make George A. Romero blush.
Albarn and Hewlett wanted to create a fictitious band that poked fun at the superficiality of the music industry, but ended up breaking through the mainstream with a sound that combined equal parts hip-hip, alternative rock and electronic music. What resulted was two albums, a self titled and Demon Days, which showed that there was more to this “gimmick” than originally led on. Look at the single “Feel Good, Inc.” for proof at just how versatile this project was.
At the turn of the 2010’s, Damon Albarn was feeling the pressure of the world changing around him. Environmental issues were raging as ozone emissions skyrocketed, the world was on the verge of another world war, and Justin Bieber had just released “Baby”. Dark times, indeed.
It was time for a revolution, and on March 3, 2010, only one month before the infamous BP Oil Spill, GORILLAZ released Plastic Beach. It was their response to the ensuing chaos, and GORILLAZ’ magnum opus.
Plastic Beach is, unquestionably, GORILLAZ’ poppiest record. HOWEVER, that isn’t a bad thing: in fact, it’s quite the opposite. The music on Plastic Beach bobs and weaves between a wide array of pop-oriented sounds and styles, from campy pop-rap, to lush synth-pop, to layered G-funk, and everything in between. It may seem like a lot to take on, but with the roster of guests, it’s an easy feat.
Snoop Dogg, Mos Def and De La Soul hold it down for the hip-hop fans, while Little Dragon and Bobby Womack keep the sound retro and futuristic. Even alternative rock gatekeepers like Lou Reed and Mark E. Smith of The Fall make appearances. Plastic Beach remains rooted in the old school, but pushes the alternative sounds into the future GORILLAZ has created.
Track for track, Plastic Beach is a masterclass in using your time effectively. At 56 minutes, I struggle to find a dud in the tracklist. From the enchanting ease of “Welcome to the World of the Plastic Beach”, to the hulking chaos of “Rhinestone Eyes” and “Glitter Freeze”, to the melancholia of existing in an artificial world with songs like “Some Kind of Nature” and “Broken”, Plastic Beach jumps through the emotional hoops of knowing that slowly but surely, we are destroying the big blue marble we call home.
“Empire Ants” and “To Binge” both feature Little Dragon, who aims to interplay with Albarn’s lead vocals in an intoxicating and hypnotic way, that make the tracks featuring her some of the sweetest moments on the record. Mos Def offers his smooth, quick delivery to “Stylo” and “Sweepstakes”, both songs that build and explode into beautiful flurries of fluttering synths and rapid drums that make you wanna kick it by the pool and dance the night away.
However, the ultimate Plastic Beach track is without a doubt “On Melancholy Hill”. Bleak, yet playful, optimistic and deflated, “On Melancholy Hill” is the modus operandi for the whole album. Yes, the world is in pretty bad shape right now, but at least we’re all here together, and it’s never too late to make a change. It’s a song that, even 10 years on, still brings me close to tears after every listen.
The story of Plastic Beach is overly complicated, as is every bit of GORILLAZ lore, but something about it feels so simple, so matter of fact, so plain to see. On album closer, “Pirate Jet”, Albarn sings “It’s all good news now / Because we left the taps / Running/ For a hundred years”. It’s tongue-in-cheek, but so is GORILLAZ as a whole. The very basis for the project’s inception was to be a response to the world at large, and nowhere is that more clear than on Plastic Beach. Just under 10 years old now, it’s not hard to see why it’s become a modern classic, and will continue to amaze fans and first time listeners for decades to come.