Review Summary: Albarn tries his hardest to make an interpretation of his own music larger-than-life, and ends up making something entertaining instead.
One has to wonder how much was really in Damon Albarn’s words of Gorillaz being behind him. After lending his hand musically to last year’s stage vision of China’s proud four novels, Journey To The West (along with Gorillaz’s artist and second real member Jamie Hewlett), Albarn clearly felt something missing from the score, yet not a working idea within it. In parts disconnecting himself from the sounds he had created within the original soundtrack and in parts paying tribute to it, Journey To The West
is Albarn’s adaptation within an adaptation. The difference the studio brought about? A cultural jumble, apparently.
This isn’t to say, oddly enough, that mashing together Gorillaz and an inspiring Chinese stage production cannot offer charm. Journey To The West
feels lost somewhere between culture and synth-pop fun, and yet the surprisingly satisfying truth concerning both is that they are squeezed together, instead of separated and caught off guard. These two distant varieties manage to make for a compelling listen without visual accompaniment. Maintaining the spirit of Albarn’s recent work with the sadly ignored The Good, The Bad, And The Queen
, however, Albarn’s evolution of Monkey here retains a wackiness that holds the pseudo-epic ambition of Journey To The West
in one place. “The Dragon King” is a brilliant example of this; a not-quite-haunting march accompanied by jokingly squealed Chinese. With its layered effects scaling operatic and electronic, “The Dragon King” sticks similarly to the formula the rest of the album wisely uses; a touch of Chinese, random swirling techno sounds and some intense orchestration.
From then on out, the album is easy to decipher and, without its original context, a time-consumer with some flaws. The journey is still present through the twenty-two tracks, with music occasionally switching from its happy-clappy whimsy mix for darker, more intense moments. Usually, when this occurs, it goes two ways: into over-the-top electronic melodrama of “Whisper”, or the lone, unfounded oriental guitars of “Monk’s Song”. These moments, while still part of the album’s overall ‘feel’, are left non-transcending of how the drama unfolds on stage. While this may have been in part intentional – to segregate the two projects in ways - the content feels better overdone in ambience and odd electrics than anything else. With “Monkey Bee” building into truly beautiful poppy melody that undeniably ends up swallowing up and making the album, the sound of Gorillaz is starkly evident and, injected into a bunch of classical composition becomes lovable enough. Without these cathartic moments, it is hard to say whether Journey To The West
would fulfil the cultural traits of China in a true fashion – the digital addition is as much a disguise as it is ‘fresh’.
Despite being a compilation so dissimilar to Albarn’s major projects in Blur, Gorillaz, et al, Journey To The West
is in some cases a typical showcase of his decisions. Overly dramatic but ultimately a bundle of laughs, the ‘transition’ from stage to album crafted still almost sounds plausible as an accompaniment to the drama that unfolds on director Chen Zhi-Zheng’s stage, however so much of his antics here come across with Albarn doing justice to himself, as opposed to the four most famous novels in Chinese history. The balance of the two most significant sounds on the album is quite questionable, and describing it like this, Albarn might have modified Journey To The West
to sound better off stage than it is on. Stuck between a lost desire for a brooding opera and animated, light entertainment, Damon Albarn has sort of crafted both.