Album review: Gorillaz - 'The Now Now'
On their sixth record, Gorillaz dare to mix breezy summer pop with Albarn's melancholic lyricism. The result is an urgent, crisp 40 minutes that is adventurous, yet rewarding
It's barely been over a year since the last Gorillaz album, but here we are again! Today, (June 29) marks the release of 'The Now Now', the sixth studio album by the funky virtual primate group. The album serves as the follow up to 2017's sprawling collaboration-heavy 'Humanz'. It might be easy to think of 'The Now Now' as a quick attempt to cash in on the buzz, but just one listen to the album should dispel that immediately.
Gorillaz fans will know that it's quite rare for the creators Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett to jump straight back into the studio and put out a whole new album in such a relatively short span. All of Gorillaz's albums are usually spaced out at least by four years with one exception. Soon after the release of the highly-acclaimed 'Plastic Beach' in 2010, which saw the group at its creative peak and also at a time when tensions between Albarn and Hewlett were high, they put out a surprise album the same year in the form of 'The Fall' (in hindsight, the name was ominous.) The album received split reactions. While some fans loved the lo-fi deep-dive which gave them a glimpse at Albarn's dynamic creative process (the whole album was recorded on an iPad while on tour), many dismissed it as a completely unnecessary venture.
The obvious comparison that 'The Now Now' warrants is obviously to 'The Fall'. But again, one quick listen will dismiss that as well. For starters, the production, helmed by James Ford (Arctic Monkeys, Depeche Mode) and Remi Kabaka is much glossier than 'The Fall', a far throw from the lo-fi feel of their previous rushed record. But as the name suggests, 'The Now Now' does have a feeling of immediacy to it - a palpable urgency to the entire album. But that doesn't mean that the sonic and lyrical themes are compromised. It's a much more focused attempt than the fall. In fact, it's a much more focused effort than last year's 'Humanz' as well, and there are good reasons why.
'Humanz' boasted a stupidly long list of collaborators. Noel Gallagher, Kali Uchis, Vince Staples, D.R.A.M., Anthony Hamilton, De La Soul, Mavis Staples, Pusha T... the list was endless. Consequently, across its lengthy 20 tracks, the effort did feel at times a little scattered, with things going a little too all over the place, even by the usual unconventional standards of Gorillaz. In contrast, 'The Now Now' features just three collaborators, making it much more convergent and that much smoother a listening experience. Jazz guitar legend George Benson features on the breezy, funk-heavy opening track 'Humility', while rap god Snoop Dogg and US house pioneer Jamie Principle guest-star on the groovy yet brooding 'Hollywood'. The result is that Damon Albarn (and his alter-ego 2-D) finds himself exactly where he needs to be right now - bang in the center of things and completely in control!
This is evident in the lyrical themes of the album. For the most part, the album is drowned in heavy synths, massive grooves, breezy summer pop sounds and most curiously, a Peter Frampton styled talk-box like bassline ('Tranz'). But cutting through the merry pop are Albarn's melancholic lyrics, contemplating loneliness and alienation (Humility), unrequited love ('Fire Flies', 'One Percent'), the hollowness of excesses ('Hollywood') and wanderlust ('Idaho'). We see Albarn at his most brooding, introspective best on 'Magic City' as he detaches himself from humanity and marvels at their evolutionary progress, perceiving us like tiny ants under a magnifying glass. "I'm on the high ridge looking down / While we're evolving, I get old /If I get back then I'll be grateful," Albarn croons. It's evident that a lot of the songwriting was done while on the Humanz tour, in forlorn hotel rooms and in the tour bus and it adds to the immediacy of the album release.
The virtual mythos of Gorillaz was also forwarded thanks to Jamie Hewlett. Noodle is no more a girl, but a fully grown woman. Meanwhile, the regular bassist, the Satanist Murdoc Niccals is in jail after some shady dealings with a shadow demon who also turned out to be a drug kingpin! Replacing Murdoc on the bass is Powerpuff Girls villain and Gangreen Gang member Ace, who makes a brief cameo in the music video for 'Humility' (alongside an overly enthusiastic Jack Black!). What's even more interesting is that the band has taken advantage of modern technology to let fans directly interact with Murdoc, as part of the storyline. Anybody with a Google Home device, Amazon Alexa or Echo, or even a Skype account can take a shot at freeing Murdoc from jail. If nothing, the experience will fill you in on a lot of the backstory in the Gorillaz story arc. Interested fans can give it a shot here.
Gimmicks apart, 'The Now Now' is a well rounded, adventurous attempt that blends cheerful, summery groove with melancholic lyricism. With a total run time of 40 minutes, it is much trimmer and skims off all the fat that weighed 'Humanz' down. The album is also an emphatic statement from Albarn. A statement which says that Gorillaz isn't done yet, that he has something more to say and that he's going to say it the only way he knows - via the sound, style and infinite swagger of the world's most notorious virtual band.