Three years ago, Damon Albarn‘s Gorillaz redefined the meaning of musical side project. The cartoon band’s eponymous debut notched up six million sales, outselling Blur‘s releases and ratcheting up the pressure for the follow-up. Suddenly, the project’s next steps would affect a major label’s share price.
Many a three-dimensional band would have buckled under the strain. Not so Gorillaz who, in response, serve up a raft of cultural icons, Hollywood film stars and artists from right across the musical spectrum and prove that, at least in 2-D world, second albums needn’t even sound difficult if you have an abundance of talent and some cool friends.
Demon Days marks a shift into darker realms for the cartoon band from the Intro. An eerie bassoon suggests entry into a haunted house and creates a distinctly noirish feel. One almost expects Christopher Lee’s dulcet tones to beckon from atop the sweeping staircase. This ghostly emptiness returns several times – it’s next detected at the end of O Green World, with a melancholic bell ring.
The next two tracks stick with a lo-fi feel of simple percussion and bass overlaid with Albarn’s trademark atmospheric synths, FX and resigned, half-cut vocals. Neneh Cherry offers some Salt’n'Pepa Push It backing vox on the unsettling Kids With Guns.
Clint Eastwood was one of the debut album’s standout tracks, and the former governor of Carmel is invoked here too, on the catchy Dirty Harry. Here we get a mix-up of rap from Bootie Brown, a children’s choir (the San Fernandez Youth Chorus) and a string section – double bass is used on most tracks – all hotch-potched together with hand claps and funky synth sounds. Music doesn’t get much more eclectic than this.
Lead single Feel Good, Inc contains the record’s most hook-laden chorus, with Albarn’s snoozy vocals juxtaposing De La Soul‘s guest rap, upbeat acoustic guitar – Blur’s Simon Tong on hand – and zingy synth and bass sounds to memorable effect.
Feel Good, Inc is fun, but Demon Days as a whole is a thing of considerable depth and melancholia and offers rather more soul than the cartoon gimmick would suggest. Minor chords dominate with resigned vocalisations and lachrymose lyrical sensibilities as viola and cello add gravitas to tracks like El Manana. Even MF Doom‘s rap contribution to November Has Come doesn’t lift the record from its reflective trajectory.
And what of the rest of those guests? Martina Topley-Bird is restricted to space-folk backing vocals on All Alone, but Roots Manuva takes the dominant lead. Elsewhere, Every Planet We Reach Is Dead even finds Ike Turner at the piano.
One of the highlights of the record is DARE, starring the always unique vocal talents of ex-Happy Mondays front man Shaun Ryder, last seen accompanying Peter Kay and fellow ex-Monday Bez on the way to Amarillo. A man not known for his lyrical dexterity, like The Fall‘s Mark E Smith, Ryder achieved iconic status rather for the sound his voice makes – and Albarn is all about unique sounds in the culturescape, as the debut record’s use of Ibrahim Ferrer‘s unmistakable voice on Que Pasa Contigo demonstrated.
And just when the cartoon heroes can’t get any cooler, along comes Dennis Hopper to read us to sleep with a monologue, Fire Coming Out Of The Monkey’s Head, punctuated by Albarn’s clearest flirtation with country in the chorus.
Closing out, Don’t Get Lost In Heaven and the title track flow easily one into the other, with the London Community Gospel Choir and angelic piano chords, shimmering guitar and uplifting lyrics offering the most optimistic moments on the record and surely drawing inspiration from The Beach Boys. There’s somehow even room for a full-tilt classical string section and a phrase of reggae along the way to the end of some 50 minutes of music that plays like half that time.
Demon Days isn’t the instant party hit that Gorillaz’s debut was. Rather, it mingles a decidedly human sadness with a palpable enthusiasm for making new music that’s every bit the unexpected surprise it sounds. Two dimensional? Anything but.