After a five-year absence, Damon Albarn’s Gorillaz are back with Plastic Beach, a star-studded post-apocalyptic concept album that just might be their most diverse and mature record to date.
Gorillaz is the brainchild of Albarn (ex-frontman of Blur) and Jamie Hewlett, a comic book artist from London. They created the “virtual” band of cartoon primates back in 1998 and released their self-titled debut album three years later. Propelled by the success of the first single, “Clint Eastwood,” Gorillaz went on to sell over seven million copies worldwide.
Their follow-up effort, Demon Days, was an even bigger success. With the help of a ubiquitous iTunes ad, “Feel Good Inc.” became one of the biggest songs of 2005 and proved that the project was more than just a novelty.
According to the story, Plastic Beach was recorded on a secret island deep in the South Pacific, where the fictional band has taken up residence. The beach itself is made up of debris, the washed up remains of human civilization. They recycle the trash, using it to build their own sort of Fantasy Island at the end of the world, which can be fully explored on their website. This setting, along with the album’s persistent concern for environmental issues, was inspired by a trip that Albarn took to a landfill in Mali.
The record begins with the crashing of waves and squawking of seagulls, building up into one big orchestral crescendo which leads right into the laid back funk of the album-opening “Welcome to the World of the Plastic Beach,” which features Snoop Dogg laying down a lazy flow over a retro beat, supported by Albarn’s smooth background vocals.
Snoop is the first member of an eccentric supporting cast of collaborators, which also includes De La Soul, Lou Reed, Mos Def, Mick Jones of The Clash, and Bobby Womack (unfortunately, a rumored appearance by Barry Gibb never came to fruition). Additionally, there are symphonic flourishes throughout the record provided by The Lebanese National Orchestra for Oriental Arabic Music and the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, which add a level of grandeur not present on their previous records.
With Plastic Beach, Albarn and company build upon their signature blend of hip-hop, electronic, rock, and dub by adding elements of world music, like Middle Eastern flutes on “White Flag,” which give way to a bombastic reggae beat. The synthesizers in songs like “On Melancholy Hill” and “Broken” make them sound like the soundtrack to the greatest 80’s teen movie never made, eliciting an instant sense of recongition and nostalgia.
On “Some Kind of Nature,” Lou Reed is appropriately cast as an old scavenger, trying to make the most of the materials left to him in the world and De La Soul lighten things up with “Superfast Jellyfish,” a goofy rant against fast food culture, with Albarn contributing a whimsical chorus.
While there is nothing as immediately infectious or danceable as something like “D.A.R.E.,” Plastic Beach is a carefully crafted pop album that brings to life the titular island and all of its diverse inhabitants, making it a place you’ll surely want to visit again and again.
(Plastic Beach will be released via Virgin Records on March 9 in the U.S., but you can listen to it now on NPR.)