Review Summary: Maybe Plastic Beach represents the beginning of the end of musical labeling, the start of an embrace of a continuum of musical style. Maybe Albarn’s creation is the realization of all sounds and genres as equally deserving and worthy as media for
It’s Electric: Gorillaz’ new album Plastic Beach
While the first impression for many listeners will be of the eclectic cast of collaborators, a closer listen reveals the album’s characteristic sound emerging from the electronic soundscapes painted by Damon Albarn. Albarn justifies his fascinating and fearless mixture of styles by framing his guests with subtle synthetic textures. And, while this music is as fresh as a sunrise on the beach, his creations are firmly rooted in the early experimental schools of electronic music.
Listen to the bleak Rhinestone Eyes or the massive Glitter Freeze. Now take out the vocals and drum machine. What you’re left with is the cold, electronic tones and oscillations of the post World War II German Elektronische Musik. Now travel to France, adding the obnoxious commercial samples of Superfast Jellyfish and seagulls and waves from Cloud of Unknowing. Electronic music owes the concept of sampling to this Musique Concrète, which pioneered the use of samples as building blocks for music in the 40s and 50s.
Of course, modern electronic music (and hip-hop and indie and pop etc.) takes advantage of both schools of thought - and has been since the time of Karlheinz Stockhausen, who took electronic music to this now-obvious conclusion in the 50’s. One might argue that references to plastic are not just social commentary, but in fact an acknowledgement of the power of electronic music to be shaped and molded to fit the artists vision.
Beyond this, Plastic Beach owes part of its aesthetic to the Jamaican dub style, a comparison suggested not only by the beach theme but by overlay of reverb laden vocals on bass and rhythm heavy tracks (e.g. White Flag, Sweepstakes).
Now for the tricky part: Is it good? In short yes, but it’s complicated. While a handful of tracks such as White Flag, Rhinestone Eyes, and Stylo have the transporting, immersive quality we’ve come to expect and appreciate from previous Gorillaz singles, the album is frighteningly uneven and at times frustrating. In the first half, Snoop Dogg introduces us to the intriguing “world of the plastic beach”, complete with its ups (White Flag) and downs (Rhinestone Eyes). However, the second half loses something – maybe momentum or focus or simply coherence - generally failing to develop the evocative scenes in the album’s previous and better half.
But it is an important album. Just as Stockhausen united the worlds of early electronic music, Albarn has attempted to incorporate many musical sensibilities in an industry polluted by genre labels. (Do you know the difference between illbient, trip-hop and acid house? How about Americana, anti-folk, and alternative country?). Starting with his own vocals and crafting of electronic beats, textures, and melodies, he has sought out voices in the musical world to meld together distant, once distinct styles, creating an album that is exceedingly difficult to label. What do you call a fundamentally electronic album performed by an imaginary quartet, relying on rap, soul, pop, and The National Orchestra for Arabic Music to get the job done?