Sigh. I read the Pitchfork review of the new Gorillaz album, Plastic Beach, long before I actually got the album. There were lots of red flags. The review opened with, “Forget the cartoon characters.” I thought, “Wait a minute. I like the cartoon characters.” And then there was, most damningly, “Joke’s over, Gorillaz are real.”
First off, I need to take issue with the assertion that Gorillaz are suddenly real because of Plastic Beach, their mostly boring, stylistically static new album. How were they not real when Del the Funky Homosapien was spitting the freshest rhymes of his life over Dan the Automator’s beats? How was “Punk”* not real? How was “Slow Country” anything less than real and, I might loudly add, fucking beautiful? I’ll grant that Demon Days felt a little uninspired, but we got a couple of shit-hot singles out of it (“Feel Good, Inc.” is 100% certified ass-shaking music. You can’t not shake your ass to that song) and they certainly deserve to be called “real.” And, for as disjointed and weird as that album was, it certainly didn’t feel as overlong and excessive as Plastic Beach.
I realized, about halfway through Snoop Dogg’s trite, uber-laconic guest spot on “Welcome to the World of the Plastic Beach”, that the first Gorillaz album (one of the not-real ones, according to Pitchfork) is the only one that I still listen to from start to finish, largely because I love – love – the fact that it is a wildly inconsistent mishmash of pop, rock, and hip-hop that is, for whatever its faults, one helluva fun album. I don’t care if the P-forkers doubt its seriousness. Pitchfork has never done much to convince me that they can tolerate “fun” or “joy” (they’re big Morrissey fans over there, you know) so it stands to reason that they would laud Damon Albarn’s most uniformly sad-sack effort since The Good, the Bad, and the Queen (an album that I actually like because it had strong, if depressing, melodies and wasn’t fucked up by the likes of Snoop Dogg**). The first Gorillaz album is like Saint’s Row 2 – it knows what it is, it doesn’t give a fuck, and it’s here to party. By way of contrast, Plastic Beach is like Animal Crossing, a game where anthropomorphic woodland creatures strive to pay off their fucking mortgages and, presumably, not douse themselves in gasoline and strike a match. The game is exactly as much fun as it sounds, and it might still be more fun than Plastic Beach.
Plastic Beach is ostensibly a “concept” album (I hate that phrase and I’m really sorry I used it) about, I think, environmental destruction. Maybe. See, the attempt at cohesion is something that does not really fit the Gorillaz milieu. It’s better left to bands like the Decemberists or my beloved Hold Steady, whose Separation Sunday is the perfect balance of storytelling and ass-kicking rock ‘n’ roll. While Pitchfork’s Sean Fennessey may deride the “unfocused” nature of the first two Gorillaz records, I celebrate it; they sounded like they were 1) doing what they wanted and 2) not taking themselves too seriously. Plastic Beach suffers under the weight of its own weariness. Even the upbeat numbers like lead single “Stylo” do little to alleviate the boredom (good video though). Even De La Soul, who propelled “Feel Good, Inc.” right down my dopamine reward pathway, fail to save the album. In fact, their contribution, called “Superfast Jellyfish”, is actually downright retarded (don’t get mad – I’m only using that word because I know it pisses off Sarah Palin, which has become a sort of lifelong goal of mine. Anyone who thinks they’re helping so-called “special needs” kids by getting mad over language should be hit in the face with a shovel. Try supporting science. Try making sure that non-rich people can afford to hire the assistants their kids might need. Try actually caring about another human being besides yourself, you shallow, retarded cunt. Rant over. For now).
Mr. Fennessey is right that the rap numbers on Plastic Beach are the worst parts, but he overstates the beauty of the rest of it. There’s nothing on Plastic Beach that tops Blur’s “Tender” in the beauty department, although “On Melancholy Hill” is a good song – perhaps the only really good one on the album.
And there’s the real rub – the disparate nature of the previous Gorillaz albums was easy to forgive because, especially on the first one, you got the feeling that you were listening to a very adept mix tape. The songs, though they didn’t necessarily fit together, were great songs. Plastic Beach feels like an attempt to Make a Statement, whether it’s musical or political or whatever, and it falls flat to my ears because of it. Pitchfork may like their music with heaping spoonful of gravitas (I do too, depending on the artist. Johnny Cash’s later works bore the weight of his years, which is partly why his cover of “I See a Darkness” is actually superior to the already-gorgeous original. But he didn’t start out as a cartoon band either), but perhaps they’d do well to go back and listen to the Ramones —
Hold on. We’d all do well to go back and listen to the Ramones. Take two minutes and do that right now.
Feel better? I know I do. Anyway, the Pitchfork people might wanna check out the Ramones and the first Gorillaz album and ask themselves if they would’ve enjoyed a Ramones album of long jams about the spotted owl. Chances are, no one would enjoy that because that’s not what the Ramones did well. And, judging by Plastic Beach, cohesion and weary seriousness are not what Gorillaz do well.
*My assertion that “Punk” is the best Gorillaz song will probably be met with laughter and scorn, but I can bear it. “Punk” is the best Gorillaz song.
**To be fair, Snoop Dogg is only on one song on Plastic Beach and I don’t want to give the impression that he is solely responsible for its bloated, preposterous shittiness. But it’s telling to me that Gorillaz used to have guest spots from MF Doom and Del the Funky Homosapien and now they’re kicking it with Snoop Dogg. A Ghostface or RZA cameo would’ve been much more welcome to my ears.