Album Review: Gorillaz – ‘Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez’

Strange sounds for stranger times; the seventh studio album from Gorillaz is a vivid, eccentric revitalisation of pop music. Bringing together postmodern pop and a myriad of guests, Song Machine (Season One: Strange Timez) swaps the self-indulgent follies of previous Albarn brainchildren for potent, conceptual remedies in an era that has seen all certainties upended. Amidst the havoc, Owen White offers his thoughts.

Gorillaz have been in a strange kind of creative rut following their 2017 reformation. The group was put on hiatus in 2012 following their 2010 record Plastic Beach, a career highlight in an already storied discography. The given reason was flaring tensions between the groups two sole members at the time: multi-instrumentalist/songwriter Damon Albarn and artist/visual designer Jamie Hewlett over what Hewlett perceived to be a minimisation of his contributions to the band. In retrospect, it is difficult not to see this as a natural point of closure for the band.

After a run of iconic records in the 2000s that had initially served to challenge the mainstream, but eventually after reshaping and redefining it, there was little to suggest a clear way forward for the band. They seemed to have succeeded at their original goal of infusing an increasingly safe and homogenous pop music landscape with experimental sounds, genre-bending production and an everything-but-the-sink stylistic approach. It was also clear that Hewlett’s anarchically cartoony visual flair and punky tongue-in-cheeky characters and worlds were growing increasingly at odds with Albarn’s lofty aspirations for the band whose music had grown increasingly fussy and mature.

Albarn provides a fresh hunk of futuristic funk, celebrity culture lampooning and intelligent songwriting.

Knowing all this then, it should come as no surprise that Gorillaz have felt a bit adrift creatively since 2017’s let-down Humanz. That’s not for lack of trying though as both Humanz and The Now Now, their other record since reforming, both suggest entirely new and radically different trajectories for the band, both of which sound intriguing enough on paper. Humanz saw Albarn imagined in the role of a musical curator employing an enormous number of collaborators from a wide range of styles and attempting to use his production and taste sensibilities to pull the results together into a cohesive project.

The album this approach resulted in felt less like a genuine Gorillaz project than it did a confused assortment of throwaway instrumentals drowning in features that were at best misdirected and at worst openly detracted from the songs. The Now Now on the other hand presented a more meat and potatoes approach to the project being primarily just Albarn supported by the usual bedrock of uncredited studio collaborators. While the album was thankfully considerably less stylistically scattershot and didn’t have the constant mess of disparate voices that clouded up Humanz, the sound presented here was sadly no less unimpressive. Bland yacht-funk and vapid electro-soul leave the album feeling less tropical and more Blackpool Pier.

Gorillaz new full length album and multimedia project Song Machine: Season One is the comeback Humanz promised and the return to basics that The Now Now should’ve been. The concept was a simple one: a new original single and music video every month in anticipation of a new project. The execution on the other hand has been anything but, and has elevated what on paper sounds like an almost by-the-numbers Gorillaz project into a thrilling return to form and arguably one of the groups best to date even taking their classic material into account.

Each of the original Song Machine singles followed a relatively basic formula: an approximately three to four minute runtime, a prominently featured collaborator and a different genre or stylistic approach as a groundwork for ideas. What makes each of these songs excel is how well implemented this formula is. These tracks are all extremely tightly-wound, painstakingly crafted pop songs featuring the catchiest hooks, most rewarding variety of genres and cleverest song concepts since Plastic Beach.

The genuine passion Albarn clearly has for the music that has shaped him is undeniable in the careful construction of the tracks.

What was maybe the most impressive feature of the Song Machine series for me from the start was the extraordinary quality of the featured artists contributions and the consistent artistic and thematic consistency of these features. Gone are the mire of sub-par features that sank Humanz like the enormous turd it was and here in it’s place is what seems like some actual curation from Albarn. This change was obvious from the opening chords of the first song they released, Momentary Bliss. A charming and surprisingly stirring punk pastiche featuring the inspired pairing of Slaves and Slowthai as the modern embodiments of the ethos this track bears the torch for.

I am not even particularly partial to Slaves in general but I can’t deny their snooty dejected vocals and blissed-out guitars add a sincerity and cartoonish dreaminess to a track that otherwise might’ve come across as too direct a pastiche. The rest of the track’s components feel equally infallible and vital as slowthai delivers one of the standout vocal performances of the year over clattering drum machine sputters, stabs of guitar and playfully rudimentary synth. The rest of the album sees Albarn utilising his other features for a variety of increasingly inventive and original ways.

Valley of the Pagans gives Beck the opportunity to lay some vocals over the best Beck track since like 2002. Albarn provides a fresh hunk of the futuristic funk, celebrity culture lampooning and intelligent song writing that made Beck’s own early records so beloved; the track could easily land on a modernised iteration of Midnight Vultures. Aries is arguably even more impressive, being the first truly great New Order song featuring Peter Hook since 1993.

The genuine passion Albarn clearly has for the music that has shaped him is undeniable in the careful construction of the tracks wistful melody, waves of technicolour synths and throwback groove. I’m not even particularly sure what exactly Elton John is doing during Pink Phantom but I’m eternally grateful Albarn gave him the chance to do it. His joyously hammy delivery on a chorus that already has grandeur and drama to spare beautifully compliments Albarn's typically reserved croon and 6LACK’s deliciously garish auto-tuned vocal runs. The track represents a breaking down of genre boundaries into a form that’s entirely unrecognisable and mutant.

The enchanting Désolé supplies a subtle piece of art-pop that could’ve landed very comfortably on 2010’s Plastic Beach.

The albums few sparser and more downbeat moments thankfully land just as rewardingly as the more blockbuster tracks. The woozy dub inversion Albarn envisions on Friday 13th are arguably far more eerie and noticeably gloomy than any of the genre's original pioneers. Tiny flourishes of synth and precession constantly clutter around the unbelievably spacious mix colouring the dreary world that the effective bass groove and cavernous guitars have built. The beautiful piano arpeggio that flows throughout Albarns portion of the track and the horn embellishments on Octavian’s infectiously downcast chorus are just icing on the particularly dour cake.

Elsewhere the enchanting Désolé supplies a subtle piece of art-pop that could’ve landed very comfortably on 2010’s Plastic Beach. From its array of weepy melodies to its soaring string backed chorus the track is simply a slice of classic Gorillaz. Otherworldly, colourful and undeniably creative like all the band's best material and with one of the most impressive vocal performances on the whole album provided by Fatoumata Diawara to boot.

Gorillaz have managed to transition over the course of one album cycle from a creatively exhausted shadow of their former selves back to their inventive and fearlessly boundary pushing A-game. Song Machine is not only the best Gorillaz album of their reformation but also one of the finest of their career so far. It’s an impeccably constructed set of intelligently written pop songs that cycle through a kaleidoscopic variety of styles and genres while maintaining a stick level of focus and flow. Albarn feels focused again, writing some of the finest songs of his career so far, honing his production skills and widening his musical vocabulary without losing the uniquely fun-orientated sensibility that has tied all classic Gorillaz albums together.

Written by: Owen White

Edited by: Olivia Stock

Article images courtesy of Gorillaz via Facebook.