Review Summary: "It'll be alright in the end. And if it's not alright, it's not the end." - 2D. "Shut up 2D." - Murdoc.
It's an end-of-the-world party, and we're all invited, but someone forgot the instruments and the band is playing off an iPad. After six years gone, it's deeply frustrating that Humanz
can't shake the vibe of being underdeveloped, a series of beats from the iPad that gave us The Fall
with famous artists thrown on in random configuration. To be fair, this is probably how all Gorillaz songs start out, but very few of these songs have evolved into something instrumentally satisfying on any level. Perhaps in compensation, they're jam-packed with celebrity names even by Gorillaz standards, to the point where an uninterrupted verse from 2D is like a splash of cold water to the face. It's not like the collaborators are slacking; Albarn told them to imagine Trump winning the election months before it happened, granting an eerie prescient quality clearest in "Let Me Out" and "Hallelujah Money" that injects pure adrenaline to most guest verses. Admittedly, the censoring of 'Trump' and 'Obama' takes the teeth off the political statements a bit, but the tonal whiplash between Pusha's grim reality check – tell me that I won't die at the hands of the police, promise me I won't outlive my nephew and my niece
– with De La Soul's stupidly hilarious squirt game line is classic Gorillaz.
Any concept album should be judged on how well it handles three things – the intro, the inevitable plethora of interludes, and the closer. Only one of those even hits the mark here, with Vince Staples effortlessly pinning his bars to the end-of-the-world party theme on "Ascension". Any trace of 'so random!! lol' humour in the interludes is long gone after one listen, but they prove more entertaining than the abysmal "We Got the Power". Not content with just being bad in every way - which stings more because there was a rockin' alternate cut which featured only Damon, Noel Gallagher and Graham Coxon, which on paper is the greatest thing ever – it also manages to completely undermine what came before. "She's My Collar" has just course corrected after a dodgy run of songs, and "Hallelujah Money" has deftly and incisively put a full stop on the semi-political story, when "Power" sinks the whole ship with some schlocky 80s synth worship and a primary school level 'love each other and literally every problem will go away' mentality.
More than ever, Humanz
feels like a result of Albarn just ringing up everyone on his contact list, sending beats across time zones clandestinely in the dead of night. There's an admirable on-the-flyness to it, but we're left with some seriously shaky features; like the everything-and-the-kitchen-sink mentality, but everyone-and-the-Yellow-Pages. "Charger"'s scratchy guitar fuzz suggests it could have been the modern day "White Light" as a 2D solo, but the feature was introduced by Albarn sorting through so much Grace Jones improvisation that he started arranging bits of paper with her words on them on the floor of his studio, a no doubt gruelling process which pretty much just resulted in him looping the bit where she says "I'm gonna take you for a ride" a few times. "Sex Murder Party" should be a standout – just look at that title – but the introduction of something was gonna happen tonight
is ironic given that absolutely nothing happens in any way, like Zebra Katz and Jamie Principle both got the memo they'd be filling in time between bigger verses that don't actually exist. On the other hand, there are some moments of real genius in the bits between interludes where real music happens. Danny Brown is a clear choice for collaborator because he's already basically a cartoon come to life, but he's almost outshined by Kelela contributing a top tier chorus on the euphoric "Submission", while Kali Uchis' sweet, flirty duet with 2D on "She's My Collar" turns an absurdly catchy pop jam into a late-album highlight. The cartoon singer passes on "Strobelite", "Submission" and "Carnival" entirely, leaving the three danciest tracks feeling like cuts from someone else's album, albeit highly enjoyable ones.
2D also sits out "Busted and Blue", but not in the way you'd expect; the animated character is absent because the song is sung by real life human being Damon Albarn, natural accent pronounced and free of cartoon exaggerations. It's the point where all pretensions, politics and wacky humour are stripped away, along with the idea that Gorillaz was ever anything more than two dudes, one behind a mic. "Busted" is almost a sister to "Thought I Was a Spaceman", the standout on Blur's The Magic Whip
; where in that song the titular spaceman was tethered to the earth digging up sand dunes, here Damon compares himself to a satellite lost in orbit, a heavenly female vocal surfacing to symbolise the planet he's trying to get back to. There's a reason it and "Andromeda" are dead centre, because all Gorillaz albums need an emotional core for us to grab onto amidst the freakshow – "On Melancholy Hill", "El Mañana", "Slow Country". This time around, the music peels right back for Damon to make heartfelt tributes to childhood haunts and lost loved ones. ("Andromeda" name-checks the late Bobby Womack, in a gut punch moment that gets more powerful every time I spin it). If nothing else, there's never been a more potent emotional core for a Gorillaz album than this.
So what is Humanz
? Is it a letdown that needed a few more months in the oven, or a transcendental work of political and emotional genius? The truth is somewhere in the middle as always, but for every dumb interlude or misjudged feature or weak beat, there are at least two moments of genuine brilliance here. It may not inspire a revolution or magically fix the problems of the Trump administration, but it's a comforting and rewarding listen. Make no mistake; this is still a frustrating, confusing mess, where incongruous elements collide and then go rattling around the edges of tracks without any rhyme or reason. In other words, it's a Gorillaz album through and through.