Review Summary: Plastic Beach is nothing but candy-coated bullshit played for satire.
When “Clint Eastwood” hit the airwaves back in 2001, I doubt anyone expected the Gorillaz to command anything in the way of commercial (or artistic) longevity. After all, how far can you take a virtual hip-hop band (one founded by the leader of a f-cking britpop band at that)? Yet here we are, nine years, several hits, an apocalyptic concept album, a graphic autobiography and several inconsequential remix records later, and the Gorillaz are still jacking radio stations, getting into high speed chases with Bruce Willis and dancing to the beat of modern decay.
has been touted as a direct sequel to Demon Days
. I don't really know how that's possible, since Demon Days
more or less ended with the world going up in flames, but there are several thematic similarities between the two albums. Where Demon Days
was a satirical hip-pop record written from the perspective of a cartoon rock band, Plastic Beach
is – pretty much the same thing, actually. It just isn't as successful. When “Stylo” started making rounds a few months back, it generated a decent amount of hype. I, however, wasn't all that impressed. Sure, “Stylo” has all the makings of a great Gorillaz track: cameo from a celebrated rapper (Mos Def), melancholic vocals from Damon Albarn, explosive turn from a legendary soul musician (Bobby Womack), but there was something missing. The beat sounded flat and oversynthesized, not unlike a sh-tty James Murphy instrumental. It had none of the depth or subtleties that their old beats had, and I quickly realized why.
Instead of enlisting Automator, Danger Mouse or another producer in their league, Damon Albarn decided to produce this album himself. Now Albarn is a fantastic songwriter, but hip-hop - hell, electronic music as a whole - is well outside his comfort zone. While Albarn has delved into hip-hop/electronica outside the Gorillaz (13
, Think Tank
, The Good, The Bad & The Queen
), he still received considerable assistance from whatever producers he was working with at the time - producers who had knowledge and experience of both genres (William Orbit, Danger Mouse) that he lacked. There's a reason why Albarn left production duties on the first two Gorillaz albums to outside beatsmiths: instead of the brilliantly crafted hip-pop instrumentals found on the first two albums, Plastic Beach
is littered with glossy synthesizer bullsh-t. In fact, this album accomplishes the nearly impossible task of being artistically stagnant and regressive at the same time. Though the music itself is considerably different from their first two records (i.e. it sucks), Plastic Beach
is structured almost exactly like Demon Days
. Psychopathic whimsy? Animated melancholy? Warped social commentary? A coalition of rappers, rockers, orchestra ensembles and musical demigods? They're all there, just without the passion and creativity that guided their earlier records.
And honestly, while the cast of Demon Days
wasn't quite as renowned as the Plastic Beach
roster, they put considerably more effort into their performances than you're likely to find here. "Welcome to the World of the Plastic Beach" sounds phoned in even by Snoop Dogg's standards, and his efforts to inject social consciousness into his lyrics come off as awkward and strained. Lou Reed and Mark E. Smith turn in performances that could've been executed by anyone with a set of vocal chords, but since they were important musicians a good century ago, well sh-t, that just completely changes everything. Elsewhere, Mos Def continues his bland artistic resurgence, contributing forgettable rhymes to "Sweepstakes" and "Stylo," and while the idea of De La Soul rapping their way through a cereal jingle might sound awesome in theory, "Superfast Jellyfish" is just more of the batsh-t irreverence they've been doing for twenty-plus years now. To make things worse, Albarn is just as uninspired behind the microphone as he is in the producer's chair. Granted, his 2-D vocals have always been a little deadpan, but listening to him mumble his way through the two or three songs he actually appears on is nothing short of painful. He actually sounds bored
on “Rhinestone Eyes,” like he's sick of his own melancholic posturing. I can't say that I blame him.
There are a few bright spots on this otherwise dismal album: a beautiful orchestral opening (it's never a good sign when the intro is one of your best songs), a stellar blend of Lebanese folk music and UK grime (“White Flag,” featuring the only half-decent rapping on the album) and the thunderous guest appearances from soul legend Bobby Womack (“Stylo,” “Cloud of Unknowing”). Little Dragon's Yukimi Nagano also deserves special notice, since she steals the f-cking show whenever she makes an appearance (the Asiatic disco track “Empire Ants” is the one song here that stands up to the Gorillaz' past work). Otherwise, Plastic Beach
is nothing but candy-coated bullsh-t played for satire.