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Gorillaz - The Now Now Music Album Reviews

Gorillaz - The Now Now Music Album Reviews
The allure of isolation defines Damon Albarn’s latest project. With only a few guests on the album, he writes simple, mostly upbeat songs with words of exhaustion.

At 50, Damon Albarn is still writing songs for the world’s most popular cartoon band because he believes in the romantic idea that an international charting group can change the world. Cartoons appeal to young people, which makes illustrator and co-founder Jamie Hewlett’s multicultural avatars—2-D, Russel, Noodle, the “imprisoned” Murdoc, and stand-in bassist Ace—a Trojan horse for the kind of politics that people prefer not to hear from millionaires. The records range from eco-centric protests to dystopian party playlists, all full of Albarn’s auteur charm and a faint scent of calculation, as if they’d been executive-produced by a bohemian pop-cultural think tank.

It’s hard to resent someone as melodically adept as Albarn, or so obviously in love with their work. On The Now Now—Gorillaz’s second album in two years, and Albarn’s fourth in five—he writes simple, mostly upbeat songs with words of exhaustion. Adrift from the group’s grand concepts, this is their least ambitious and most plainly enjoyable music in years: written on tour, hashed out by Albarn and Hewlett at their studios, and recorded in the space of a month. It is, in the band’s telling, a solo album by Albarn’s character 2-D. It sounds, to the less imaginative, like an outlet for the daydream funk, playful psych-pop, and upscale disco that presumably soundtrack Albarn’s rare days off.

When Gorillaz records do grate, it’s usually thanks to a kind of sarcastic opulence, as if they’d been dictated by a man in a poolside recliner who won’t put down his iPad. Even when they’re on form, there’s something not quite right about their version of pop. The album opens with “Humility,” which sounds like an A.I.-generated summer bop: basslines bounce, synths rush, and George Benson riffs frolic like dragonflies. Everything is in its right place, yet the tune, as well as plenty here like it, conjures the ennui that descends when you finally arrive at the beach and wonder, Is this it? It is. The Now Now is programmed fun, the affable kind that never threatens to whisk you away, but its wrongness is oddly compelling and part of Gorillaz’s world-building dexterity.

The Now Now succeeds partly because of its scarce guest list (Snoop Dogg and Jamie Principle, on “Hollywood,” are the only vocal features), relative to last year’s overstuffed Humanz. The allure of isolation defines the record—Albarn wrote it in penthouse hotel rooms—and the motif fits his themes of modern politics and technology. “Calling the world from isolation,” the album begins, a mantra that shape-shifts to allude to Brexit, gun laws, and other political specters. It’s handy that these themes are, with Albarn’s light touch, mostly interchangeable, because they later become entangled with the subplot of a sabotaged relationship. “Baby I just survived, I got drunk, I’m sorry, am I losing you,” he groans on “Fire Flies,” a come-back plea that might as well be Britain sending a rueful late-night text to the EU. After endless observational laments, it’s a welcome personal flourish, albeit undermined by plodding space-funk that’s barely more convincing than its penitent narrator.

Given his penchant for the music of Mali and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, it’s fascinating that Albarn remains such a sucker for generic pop-house and boom-bap beats. Gorillaz may be the only band in the world that could be improved by Diplo: Their rhythmic homogeneity—along with the space-station filters on Albarn’s already glum vocals—sometimes keeps these otherwise masterful pop confections grounded. Often the best songs are, accordingly, the folksiest, like “Souk Eye” and “One Percent,” fingerpicked acoustic numbers embellished by android whirrs and longing synths. They might have populated a follow-up to Everyday Robots, Albarn’s 2014 solo LP, were it not for their fairytale twinkle—the sense that everything is at once awful and full of magic, a quality that animates all of Gorillaz’s most apocalyptically pretty work.

Albarn had a shot at rehabilitating his languid balladry on Everyday Robots, his first latter-career album to let his melancholy just exist without ornamentation. The cartoon band can catch you off guard like that, in a summer pop playlist or a branch of Urban Outfitters, which makes the project, in a strange way, a more suitable solo concern than Albarn’s proper solo work. He’s his own institution now, neither a dilettante nor a polymath, comparable to none, still with a schoolboy eye for the absurd and an interest in almost everything. It might be too humble for its own good, but The Now Now is the rare commercial sojourn that feels like a product of real fascination.

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