In interviews prior to release, Damon Albarn outlined the three tenets for Humanz; ‘’pain, joy, urgency”, stating that he briefed collaborators that they were to make a party record about “the world going nuts.’’ Oddly, given the nature of this brief, this is an at times muddy record, struggling under the weight of the stellar list of guest stars and with the associated risk of loss of focus.
2010’s Plastic Beach represented a new phase in Gorillaz’ development as it encompassed an extensive touring schedule, but also an apparent end, as Albarn and animator Jamie Hewlett’s relationship was pushed beyond breaking point, leading to a lengthy hiatus. The product of sessions scattered around the world, recorded in London, Paris, New York, Chicago and Jamaica, Humanz comes some seven years removed from Plastic Beach and subsequent mini album, The Fall.
As ever, there’s an extensive and varied list of collaborators, from Vince Staples to Grace Jones, the omnipresent De La Soul to Jehnny Beth of Savages. But the underlying feeling is a sense of being scattered. The strength of this record lies in the initial burst of tracks, Staples races through ‘Ascension’ with a torrent of intensity, Peven Everett delivers a virtuoso turn on Strobelite, and Danny Brown brings a typically raucous guest verse to ‘Submission’, beautifully offsetting the sweetness of the hook provided by Kelela.
Humanz is sited on a post-apocalyptic dancefloor, it’s a muted down tempo party, vaguely attempting to find some light in the shade but often wallowing in the mire, particularly later in the record. Following the stellar opening gambit, the first misstep comes with ‘Momentz’, featuring regular collaborators De La Soul. It’s a slight, throwaway track that does nothing to recover momentum following the weighty, though worthy, ‘Saturn Barz’. There’s an ongoing battle to recover this lost impetus for the remainder of the record, and following the unsettling, intriguing ‘Charger’, featuring Grace Jones and Albarn babbling and incanting in a disconnected manner underpinned by a burbling, dense riff, and the fine ‘Andromeda’, which calls to mind the lower key moments of recent Blur LP The Magic Whip, it’s all but gone. Apart from ‘Let Me Out’, powered by the incredible Mavis Staples, Humanz limps to a close, its limited palate undermining the potential shown at times. There’s squelchy synths, a mumbled vocal from Albarn colliding with a more vibrant contribution from a guest – with the flat ‘We Got The Power’ missing the mark entirely.
Often slight, if enjoyable, this is a diverting listen that may be more likely to come to life in a live setting. The power of the mass collective lends a sense of an Albarn curated mixtape, it doesn’t always hit the mark, but worthy of investigation.