Melodic tunes and lascivious cartoons: Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett are back with a new album, Cracker Island.
Cracker Island, by Gorillaz, Parlophone and Warner Records
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Damon Albarn’s Gorillaz project, founded in 1998 in concert with visual artist Jamie Hewlett, began as a reaction to MTV and boy bands, they say, as well as Albarn’s main outfit, Blur, one guesses, and perhaps the whole idea of ageing in pop, this writer insists. Gorillaz, an ageless band, is comprised of four Hewlett characters named 2D and Russel Hobbs and Murdoc Niccals and Noodle, who, Gorillaz legend has it, was replaced as lead guitarist from 2006 to 2010 by her own clone, Cyborg Noodle. There are videos for most Gorillaz songs and the band even “made an appearance” in New York in December, and then London a day later, to promote the new album, Cracker Island. A collaboration with Google, the augmented-reality concerts saw Noodle et al. performing on giant screens in Times Square and Piccadilly Circus, where the crowd could also watch the characters “come to life” through an app on their phones.
A press release for Cracker Island tells us the band members “have relocated to Silverlake, California as they recruit new members to join ‘The Last Cult’, in search of the one truth to fix the world.” (The website thelastcult.org takes your email address and gives you a link to the title track from Cracker Island, as well a note from Murdoc, “The Great Leader.”) This loose idea is expressed more clearly in the videos than it is in the music. And that’s one division that has always clearly manifested—the cartoons do stuff that is generally not connected to the albums (except for “Skinny Ape,” which seems to be very much about 2D—the lyrics go “Don’t be sad for me / I’m a skinny little ape / I’m a cartoon g.”).
There is a healthy Reddit thread dedicated to Gorillaz and their graphic interfaces, and I enjoy watching the forum fans loving the cartoons more than I enjoy watching the cartoons. I have no feeling for Hewlett’s visual world, which has the same goofy lasciviousness and juvenile sproing of his Tank Girl series. In the video for “Silent Running,” the band is doing battle with necromantic types who strap 2D to a pentagram and almost feed him to a monster. Our heroes save him with Murdoc’s noxious green essence, which chokes and destroys the monster, and so on.
In the “Cracker Island” video, which seems to take place after this escapade, they’re in a Hollywood hospital, dazed and barely functioning. There are several shots of police officers watching the band and repeatedly tightening their grips on holstered handguns. At best, this is tone-deaf, and at worst, it’s the same. It’s impossible to tell if the cops are to be taken seriously and if the band will perhaps vaporize them with Murdoc’s bodily poison. The video is as vague as most of the Gorillaz project, and the lack of political heft is common to the whole.
As a songwriting project, though, Gorillaz is a triumph for Albarn, and may have eclipsed Blur. Songs like “Feel Good Inc.” are global hits and karaoke staples now, and “On Melancholy Hill” is popular with teens I know and TikTok users I do not. An Argentine friend assures me Gorillaz are huge there now while Blur are basically invisible. Cracker Island is essentially a duo effort by Albarn and coproducer and cowriter Greg Kurstin, the main instrumentalist on the album, with assistance from producer Remi Kabaka Jr. and singer Adeleye Omotayo.
When the music is the focus, we leave cartoons behind in more than one way. “Silent Running” is an example of what Albarn does so effortlessly—it’s a sweet and silvery tune that hints at infinite darkness while feeling effervescent, a variation on the original Lennon strain of pop. In an interview with Genius, Albarn explains that the lyrics are about “the hypnotic nature of beauty and how dangerous that can be,” and being “mesmerized” while driving at night. “I got caught up in nowhere again” sounds like what Albarn describes as the moment before a “head-on collision.” It’s lovely.
The part of Gorillaz that isn’t melodic song form, represented in that glossy ’80s mode that has been back in style since Drive and its Chromatics soundtrack, is a strain of ’90s hip-hop Albarn is dedicated to keeping alive. Earlier Gorillaz tracks featured Del the Funky Homosapien, MF Doom, and De La Soul, and to good ends, too. The engagement isn’t trivial, and, as awkward as these across-the-aisle collaborations can be, Gorillaz is one of the few instances that has never felt that way. Bootie Brown of Pharcyde is back again on Cracker Island, and on “New Gold,” he says “Like Shaun he’s a ryder,” a reference to the Happy Mondays singer Shaun Ryder, who performed on the early single “DARE.” (Gorillaz journalism becomes a Wikipedia page quickly, as the albums feature so many guests, who feel simultaneously like stunts and entirely legitimate.) The one time I saw Gorillaz live, the human beings had to come back in, Ryder among them, cheered on for barely completing his vocal duties while being so drunk we could almost smell him. The guest list on Cracker Island is almost algorithmic in its envelopment of decades: Thundercat, Stevie Nicks, Tame Impala, Beck, and Bad Bunny. I do hope Albarn embraces the Vegas residency sooner than later. Which he can do whenever he wants, because cartoons don’t age, and neither do his melodies.
In the course of trying to figure out what a Gorillaz album is at the end of the day—since any participant here can easily point the finger at a coproducer or a cartoon and say, “I dunno, ask him”—I fell in love with this one and began playing it as my default morning music. The duet with Nicks, “Oil,” has the same Angelino-Heights-in-the-chemical-dusk melancholy infusing all of Cracker Island, heavily suggesting Ryan Gosling contemplating death with Michelle Williams riding shotgun. There are “wells of poison” and “dark maths” and “interlocking cluster bombs” in this “place you reach when / you can’t help yourself anymore and the madness comes.” When Nicks rages against this dying, and sings “fill them up with love,” it seems entirely sincere and is perhaps the Easter egg that Albarn has been hiding inside Gorillaz from day one.
Sasha Frere-Jones is a musician and writer from New York. His memoir, Earlier, will be published by Semiotext(e) in the fall of 2023.