Gorillaz front man Damon Albarn is not afraid of switching gears. With his band’s self-titled debut in 2001, he fused Latin beats and rock riffs cohesively in one album. On “Demon Days,” Gorillaz’ second album, Albarn and his crew blended heavy pop with the musical talent of the London Community Gospel Choir. And on “Plastic Beach,” he employed rappers Mos Def and Snoop Dogg to give the album a heavy hip-hop vibe.
The one constant in Gorillaz’ 10-year run has been their emphasis on collaboration. Del tha Funkee Homosapien and De La Soul helped put the band on the map with their contributions to early Gorillaz tracks “Clint Eastwood” and “Feel Good Inc.” The album “Plastic Beach” provided Gorillaz fans with a bevy of guest vocals, including The Velvet Underground’s Lou Reed, rap phenoms Snoop Dogg and Mos Def and Swedish export Little Dragon.
Yet the band’s April 19 release entitled “The Fall” is noticeably light on the guest vocals. Besides the song “Bobby in Phoenix,” which employs the soulful sounds of Bobby Womack, “The Fall” is historically void of collaboration. At times, the album feels like Damon Albarn’s own personal tour diary rather than a full-fledged studio album. And rightly so, perhaps, as most of the tracks were recorded on Albarn’s iPad during the band’s American tour last October.
Surprisingly, the introspective turn Albarn takes in this album is refreshing, relaxed and, at its best, beautifully composed. The album’s first track “Phoner to Arizona” offers audacious pulsing synths and distorted vocals that somehow just work. These sounds and patterns are echoed throughout the album, but “Phoner” is by far the best of the bunch.
“Revolving Doors, what have I done?” asks Albarn on the next track, “Revolving Doors,” which begins with delicate acoustic noodling and builds into an addictive electronic track. The song is a more modest “Stylo” focusing more on vocals and less on fanfare. “The Joplin Spider” makes an arresting techno statement in an otherwise laidback collection of songs. Albarn layers on the beats in a surprisingly complex fashion, given the circumstances surrounding the recording of his album on tour.
One of the better tracks on the album, “Amarillo,” makes use of ambient vocals, strings and contemplative synths to create an atmospheric vibe worth hearing. The song is reminiscent of “El Mañana” from “Demon Days,” and provides a more intimate alternative to some of “The Fall’s” other tracks.
Radio static dominates the first 20 seconds of “The Parish of Space Dust,” before the vocals build into an oddly gorgeous harmony. Radio hosts report over in the background and banjo and accordion sounds provide accompaniment to Albarn’s singing.
“The Fall” is most definitely a grower, as most Gorillaz albums are. The days of Gorillaz making “club-friendly pop” songs may be over, but Albarn and his dwindling contributors still do make good music. Though “The Fall” may seem like another random addition to one of the most varied bands around, it is truly a unique piece of musical expression that stands on its own.
And as a devout fan of Gorillaz culture, I can only hope that the artistic genius of Jamie Hewlett will round out this project and bombard us with the level of sensory overload we have come to expect from Gorillaz.
Hewlett, Albarn’s creative cohort, is the man responsible for the visual manifestation of the cartoon band. Some of his contributions include the floating island scene from the “El Mañana” video and the inspired visuals from “On Melancholy Hill,” as well as the cartoon band members themselves.
Hopefully in the coming months we’ll have more of Hewlett’s stunning animation to help make sense of Albarn’s funky synth stylings. In the mean time, the music of “The Fall” provides a relaxed and refreshing sequel to the celebrated “Plastic Beach,” and makes us wonder what Gorillaz could possibly think of next.