With just three official studio albums in their 17-year career to date (four, if you include the 2010 collection of iPad recorded sketches, The Fall) a new release by Gorillaz is always a cause for excitement. The self-proclaimed “world’s first virtual hip-hop group” have always been far too breathlessly inventive to be pigeonholed in any one genre, with a kaleidoscopic range of influences and collaborators encompassing everything from ’60s R&B singers to Arabic string sections.
At the centre of it all is that prolific polymath Damon Albarn, who seems to thrive on juggling a range of disparate musical projects unmatched by any other artist. While the early Gorillaz were very much a collective, with Jamie Hewlett’s cartoonish visuals and other performers like Dan “The Automator” Nakamura equally integral components, the group now essentially revolves around one man and his apparently bottomless well of ideas.
As Gorillaz has evolved into more and more of a one-man band, the array of guest contributors has steadily increased to flesh out their sound. So, while their 2001 debut and 2005’s Demon Days used collaborators relatively sparingly, we’ve now reached the stage where they are used on virtually every track.
Produced by Gorillaz, The Twilight Tone of D / P and Remi Kabaka and recorded in London, Paris, New York, Chicago and Jamaica, Humanz features a stellar line up of featured artists which includes cutting edge artists from both the hip-hop scene (Danny Brown, Pusha T) and further afield (Jehnny Beth of Savages, Mercury prize winning singer-songwriter Benjamin Clementine), as well as old favourites like De La Soul and Mavis Staples and the obligatory legend (the inimitable Grace Jones).
The quality of these names is not in doubt, but Humanz sometimes strays perilously close to feeling like a soundtrack or compilation album, with each song a showcase for the respective guesting star turn, rather than the work of a cohesive entity. It doesn’t help that there’s nothing here as insanely catchy as Clint Eastwood or Feel Good Inc; nor are there any moments with the sublime, fragile beauty of a Melancholy Hill.
In fact, Humanz mostly eschews Albarn’s trademark elegiac melodies, with the downbeat Busted And Blue the only extended example. Instead, the mood is altogether more frenetic, perhaps aiming to reflect the record’s thematic concept of a dystopian future in which America would suffer a catastrophic disaster – a scenario some would say has now come to pass following last November’s presidential election. The sonic palette is correspondingly futuristic – heavy on keyboards, spacey synthesisers and beats, with little in the way of organic instruments.
The results are mixed. Jones is disappointingly under-used on the crunching electro of Charger, while American R&B singer Anthony Hamilton‘s impressive voice can’t compensate for Carnival’s plodding song craft. On the other hand, Let Me Out is bouncingly addictive, with the contrasting trio of Mavis Staples, Pusha T and Albarn weaving in and out of the mix with aplomb. Lead track Ascension is winningly confident, with another Staples – Californian rapper Vince – providing brash energy and momentum with a hint of menace.
Humanz peaks late with the otherworldly Hallelujah Money, dominated by Clementine’s characteristically rich, idiosyncratic vocal turn, while anthemic closer We Got The Power, featuring a vibrant performance by Jehnny Beth alongside Albarn’s world-weary whisper, brings proceedings to a close with the defiant message “We got the power to be loving each other/No matter what happens, we’ve got the power to do that.”
With so many talented people involved, Humanz was always going to have its moments, and it is undoubtedly an engaging, intriguing and bold record. Yet when compared to Demon Days or Plastic Beach, one cannot help but feel just a little underwhelmed by the songs here. Perhaps a bit more of Gorillaz and a few less guests might have given Humanz rather more soul.