Review: ‘Humanz’ by Gorillaz

For a period of time, it appeared as if The Fall would be the Gorillaz’s final outing following the April 7, 2012 announcement that the band had split. It would’ve been a somewhat gloomy end for the virtual band, as The Fall was little more than a pet project recorded on an iPad during the American leg of the Escape to Plastic Beach World Tour, hardly the swan song Gorillaz fans wanted or deserved. That period of time, however, only lasted between two to three weeks, as by April 25, 2012, co-founders Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett had mended their relationship and were confident a fifth Gorillaz record would be in their future.

In the years following Albarn and Hewlett’s reconciliation, Humanz (then untitled) felt like a foregone conclusion, which made its absence all the more frustrating. But over the last two years, while we were waiting, they were hard at work—Humanz sports twenty tracks plus six on the deluxe edition—collaborating across the musical spectrum with some of the industry’s most interesting artists: old, new, and soon-to-be-discovered. Albarn’s ambitions transcend genre, and Humanz explores a lot of different musical ideas and guest combinations; unfortunately, Albarn doesn’t always use these guests correctly, nor does he explore many of these ideas in any sort of depth. The result is an album that can’t help but occasionally feel half-baked, even when it works.

Despite the lengthy track list, Humanz only clocks in at roughly fifty minutes. Though there are exceptions, most of the songs run between two and four minutes in length, with some incredibly brief interludes filling space every few tracks. It’s the same strategy that made Madvillain’s \ Madvillainy such a staple of its genre, and given the variety of the guest lineup on Humanz, it’s an understandable direction to take the project. After all, not every musical concept can carry a song, and if there’s anything positive to be said about Albarn’s approach, it’s that he never allows a single sound or style to dominate the record or become stale. Still, the approach can be a double-edged sword; tracks like “Ascension” and “Carnival” have immense energy, but they still feel like undercooked, unfinished ideas, particularly with the minimal presence of Albarn’s voice on the former and its outright absence on the latter. “Let Me Out,” on the other hand, represents Albarn’s approach working at the height of its potential. It makes the most of its three-minute runtime, with a bouncy synth beat underlying terrific performances from Mavis Staples and Pusha T; it’s the contrast between the three performers (Albarn is also on the track as a vocalist) that elevates its potency to match its brevity.

In fact, some of the best guest work comes in the most esoteric of choices and oddest of pairings, and how Albarn utilizes them. Take “Hallelujah Money,” featuring avant-garde pop singer Benjamin Clementine, around whom the song was likely built. “Hallelujah Money” is sermonic, Clementine’s stretchy vocals monologuing about the influence of money and racism on the American political system. It’s something that would’ve fit squarely on his most recent project (2016’s At Least for Now), but instrumentally sounds like a Gorillaz spin on chamber pop. Similarly, the great Grace Jones’s presence on “Charger,” one of the strongest tracks on the album, feels entirely appropriate. It’s got a growling guitar loop that recalls past Gorillaz songs like “M1A1” (from their self-titled debut), but every time Jones bellows a laugh in the background, I’m reminded of her comparable vocalizations on Nightclubbing.

Humanz is at its best when Albarn demonstrates an understanding of what makes his featured artists unique. And as much as I’d like to say he uses features as well on Humanz as he did on Demon Days or Plastic Beach, there are just too many features that either get buried or are simply banal. The former applies to “Andromeda,” a terrific piece of synthpop in which guest D.R.A.M. is tragically underutilized; “Strobelite” falls into the latter with a humdrum vocal performance by Peven Everett, and it isn’t helped by a beat that sounds like a throwaway from Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories. Worst of all is “We Got the Power” with Jehnny Beth (Savages) and Noel Gallagher (Oasis)—Albarn’s hardly a second-rate songwriter, so it’s hard to imagine how “We got the power to be loving each other / No matter what happens, we’ve got the power to do that” made the final cut. The deluxe edition’s six additional tracks are almost all better than some of the main album’s weakest links, especially “Ticker Tape” with Carly Simon, another collaborator who proves Albarn’s sharp ability to think outside of the box with his features.

Humanz is a largely Sisyphean effort; for every step forward Albarn takes with one track, he slides back with another. For every “Busted and Blue,” a stunning work of melancholy, there’s a song like the overcrowded, sluggish “Sex Murder Party,” which runs out of steam well before it’s over. Still, Humanz has more consistency than its lengthy track list would suggest. There’s enough solid material here to constitute a warm reception, but too much filler for Humanz to be truly great. A seven-year absence left me ravenous for new Gorillaz music, but an album has to be more than just a collection recordings and concepts. An album must be curated, and Humanz has a raging fire in its belly without the vision to use it. These twenty or so new Gorillaz tracks are generally satisfactory, but they don’t really constitute much of a Gorillaz album.

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