As much as I love Gorillaz, this album has always had me stumped when it comes to explaining to myself and other people why this album is any good. But now, almost 4 years after it was first released, I think I finally understand why that is.
There are about a thousand different ways to look at this album. I remember first seeing Stylo while watching over the shoulder of my brother on the computer. Recalling Gorillaz from a very long time ago in my life (I owned Demon Days when I was little) I rushed out and brought Plastic Beach. At the time, lacking the experience in music and musical concepts that I now have today, it was more or less a hit and miss. I liked Stylo, the second half of Empire Ants, On Melancholy Hill, Glitter Freeze and Plastic Beach but the rest of the album I just didn't... well... get.
... Then I uncovered the back story on Gorillaz.com.
I had no idea up until visiting the website that these animated characters that appeared in the music videos and on the album covers actually had a story. The Plastic Beach island, 2D being kidnapped and forced to do the album against his will and Murdoc seeking refuge on the island to hide from pirates suddenly created a different atmosphere. Now the entirety of Empire Ants expressed a deep sadness and On Melancholy Hill sounded cathartic instead of tacky and my new favourite song was Cloud of Unknowing. I was hooked on the Plastic Beach story and checked the website five hundred times a day waiting for the story to progress.
... But a good story isn't what makes the album work. It's not enough to say an album is great if you're not looking at the music itself.
No, almost 4 years on, having gone through the devout metalhead phase most teenagers go through and a staunch scorner of mainstream rubbish I now see why I fell in love with this album. It's simple, it's Damon Albarn's unique ability to make music. I can now say for sure, why this album amazes me. If you watch the documentary The Making of Plastic Beach you are informed of this: The whole thing is an experimental concept album about the environment and the whole thing is a movie that never has to be released to cinemas because you make it up in your head as you listen. With the help of a vast amount of collaborators, Damon Albarn has created an atmosphere that, with the right mind set, is a story in itself.
The sad thing is, it's only sometimes obvious and certain aspects of the music itself at times ruin this. In particular, I'm thinking of Snoop Dogg's performance on Welcome to the World of the Plastic Beach and Mos Def's performance on Sweepstakes. They don't work. Sweepstakes doesn't really fit on the album when all is considered, the songs title is about all the story you get out of it and at 5 and a half minutes long it well overstays its wecome, because it's mostly the same thing all the way through. As for Welcome to the World of the Plastic Beach, the music is great but the rap is poorly delivered. All of the ideas are there, but Snoop Dogg has written and performed them in a way that you don't get it and you can't take it seriously. White Flag is another song that's like this, however, it starts to make more sense the more you listen to it where as the latter two that I mentioned gradually begin to make less sense the more and more you listen. Finally there's Glitter Freeze. It's mostly instrumental and it doesn't really add anything more to the album.
Thankfully, the rest of it works. The orchestral pieces on the album are wonderful. Bobby Womack does a stand out performance on this album. Stylo is made far more interesting by his presence (Mos Def sounds good here too) and he gives a stellar deliverance the second time he appears in the song. Not to mention the beautiful Cloud of Unknowing, the song just sounds so serene and doesn't steal away from the similar feel that you get off of Empire Ants. At first, Superfast Jellyfish is stupid. That is, until you realise that it's supposed to be about how in the future, humans have been reduced to eating Jellyfish because of the decline in the sealife and then it becomes one of the albums most important songs. Empire Ants is one of my all time songs because of the way its two halves are complete polar opposites, but the song wouldn't work without it. Damon Albarn and Yukimi Nagano's voices complement each other incredibly well and is one of the things that make the song To Binge work as well.
Although I may think that this album is a true gem, a lot of people will not. THIS ALBUM IS NOT FOR EVERYONE. No two songs on here sound the same and I commend Albarn for being able to do that. This album is not meant to be marketable to everyone's liking, that's pretty much the point of Gorillaz. They're supposed to be different and this album is definitely unlike anything I've ever heard and ever will hear, but you have to be into that sort of thing to enjoy this album. Basically, with a thousand different ways to look at it, there are a thousand different opinions that you could have from listening to it. So give at listen sometime and make your own decision.