It’s hard not to feel a little hard done by after a few listens to Plastic Beach. The much-hyped guest spots, the video teasers, syndicated pirate radio broadcasts, track snippets, streams, animations and label confidentiality agreements have been building the expectation. Then again, Gorillaz was conceived as a multimedia project by Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett so perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised by the reliance on visual art to promote this but the resulting record is a unconvincing first listen.
Albarn has said that Plastic Beach is a pop album. It certainly doesn’t feel like one at first. Once you immerse yourself in Gorillaz’ singular scatter-shot world however, it begins to unravel and there are many rewards. It’s not perfect. It’s more disparate than Demon Days perhaps, but it’s certainly something unique.
Musically, there are few people in the world who could bring so many varied personnel together and make it sound so refreshing but that has been the definition of the Gorillaz project since the start. For a cartoon band, this is stirring stuff. This time around, Albarn is joined by an impressive cast: Mark E. Smith, Kano, Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, Mos Def, De La Soul, Gruff Rhys of Super Furry Animals, Little Dragon, half of The Clash, Lou Reed, Bobby Womack and Sinfonia VIVA amongst others.
Inevitably, a few of the guests fail to make an impression. Snoop Dogg’s turn on ‘Welcome To The World Of The Plastic Beach’ is disappointing if you’re expecting a Gorillaz-funk anthem to rival his best work. You can’t feel the presence of The Clash’s Mick Jones and Paul Simonon on the title track and Lou Reed feels like he’s on autopilot during ‘Some Kind of Nature’.
There are many positives though. Kano and Bashy’s one-two vocal delivery is expertly matched with strings by The National Orchestra of Arabic Music and Albarn’s big beats on ‘White Flag’. You’ll have heard ‘Stylo’ – an early highlight, featuring soul crooner Bobby Womack and rapper Mos Def. Both make equally pertinent contributions to other songs: Mos Def on the hip-hop of ‘Sweepstakes’ which the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble turn into a Mardi Gras dance-party. Meanwhile, Womack delivers some much needed emotion into ‘Cloud of Unknowing’.
Adding light and shade to the record elsewhere are contributions by Sweden’s Little Dragon on ‘Empire Ants’ and ‘To Binge’ which inject the album with a much-needed femininity, De La Soul and Gruff Rhys lock into the cartoon groove on the fast-food themed ‘Superfast Jellyfish’ and Mark E. Smith does his incoherent babble thing wonderfully on the synth workout of ‘Glitter Freeze’.
For an album with so many names attached, it’s the originator, Damon Albarn that still holds the key to Gorillaz. His solo runs here which number four in total, anchor Plastic Beach firmly in his grasp. His ability to make playful instrumentals that impress regardless of how these guests go down means that there’s not a single bad track here, in the tradition of the word. Every tune has something to recommend it and doesn’t really sound like anyone else in the process. If you can reconcile yourself with the fact that sometimes, huge stars play bit parts, you’ll grow to love this weird and wonderful world.