With Plastic Beach celebrating its 10-year anniversary this month – a rather frightening fact in itself – I’ve been thinking about the journey that the Gorillaz project has gone through since its inception. Demon Days, released in 2005, is widely considered to be the essential work, capturing that satisfying sensation of sombre pop with an array of fantastic sonic fusions. Although I find the album’s closing moments to be slightly underwhelming – at least in comparison to the rest – it does retain a delicious darkness throughout its playtime. Plastic Beach, on the other hand, is far more thematic, arguably more cohesive, and certainly more interesting in its production. Songs are covered in a plastic sheen that lends itself to the overriding concept, and it sounds gorgeous. However, it does also contain a higher amount of guest features, and this is where many fans take issue with recent Gorillaz output. On Humanz, Damon Albarn’s vocals were a welcome relief from the overpowering amount of collaborations. It just doesn’t ‘feel’ like a Gorillaz album. Conversely, I think Plastic Beach gets the balance spot on. Despite more than a dozen featured guests, Albarn remains the prominent figure, almost father-like. The Gorillaz family decides to take a warm and relaxing vacation, with fond friends welcoming them on arrival. Welcome to the World of the Plastic Beach.
After a slightly sketchy start, it doesn’t take long for Plastic Beach to hit its stride. “Rhinestone Eyes” is vintage Gorillaz: classic 2-D crooning combined with playful synths. Better still is the synth-pop highlight “On Melancholy Hill”, which may well be one of Albarn’s finest moments in his ever-evolving career. Bobby Womack, De La Soul, and even Lou Reed contribute in their own unique ways, but the stand out collaborator is undoubtedly Little Dragon’s Yukimi Nagano. Her vibrant and dynamic voice lends itself perfectly to the Gorillaz aesthetic, making both “Empire Ants” and “To Binge” two of the finest tracks on the record. While the hip-hop features on Demon Days often made for the best moments, I think Plastic Beach finds success in the more melodic regions. However, even with all of its experiments, the success rate is still high, which in itself is some accomplishment. In addition to the moody pop/electronica blend that Gorillaz is so well-known for, Albarn incorporates elements of jazz, dancehall, and oriental music. It somehow sticks together magnificently well. I suppose this has always been the main lure of Gorillaz, and is perhaps the reason why such a broad band of people have listened to the music since the days of “Clint Eastwood”. The experiment may have gotten out of hand in recent years, but the equilibrium that Plastic Beach achieves continues to delight. I think it’s Albarn’s most imaginative work to date.
Favourite tracks // Empire Ants
On Melancholy Hill
What a pleasure it is listening to Gorillaz in full flow. I don’t think Plastic Beach is the group’s best outing (that would be Demon Days) but it’s probably the most fun. Despite the all-star lineup of collaborators the ‘band’ still just about holds together, and everything’s packaged in an immutable groovy sound. It’s vibing, jiving beach party.
When the album’s in full swing it’s as good as any pop out there. “Empire Ants” is an all time great Gorillaz track, with Little Dragon’s Yukimi Nagano soaring high. It’s make-you-weak-at-the-knees gorgeous. “Stylo” is another top drawer collaboration, its lush groove irresistible. The band show they can still do it on their own with tracks like “Melancholy Hill”, which is vintage 2-D murmuring. I also have a huge soft spot for “Glitter Freeze”, a kind of Rocky Horror Light Show. Mark E Smith of The Fall is the perfect man to have at its centre. Plastic Beach’s finest moments sound, appropriately, like synthetic luxury. It’s buoyant and aspirational, feeling like a release of tension after the comparative harshness of Demon Days.
That said, I do also think this marked the point where the ‘band’ started to splinter and fade. A few tracks feel like a bridge too far, if not straight up duds. “White Flag” and “Sweepstakes” don’t land, and for all its charm the album does feel a little bloated. It’s a less disciplined iteration of the Gorillaz project, for better and for worse. When all is said and done I’m delighted it’s part of the discography.8 10
Favourite tracks // Empire Ants
On Melancholy Hill
Plastic Beach was always going to struggle to compete against the runaway success of its predecessors. Demon Days made a hit out of every single that came from it. But ten years on, it feels as though this maybe should’ve had more of a look in.
From its orchestral opening to its simmering Snoop Dogg collaboration it’s clear Plastic Beach is not going to be hemmed in. Damon Albarn’s recent orchestral score, Journey to the West, combined with big names the band could now collaborate with led to a mixing pot of ideas and it comes across. For me it’s less a cohesive track list, and more an hour’s whirlwind of music.
That said there are some Gorillaz hallmarks – the sizzling synths, the laidback, summery guitar hooks, and a healthy portion of input from the band members themselves. Where more recent albums have ceded the band’s original style in favour of collaboration-led tracks, Plastic Beach finds a balance that adds a flavour of the collaborators to firmly Gorillaz-sounding tracks.
Highlights for me come from the title track’s dreamscape, “Empire Ants” which lazily breezes through five minutes with one of many excellent Little Dragon features, and the bloops and bleeps of “Sweepstakes” which make way for a stonking set of horns at its peak.
It’s not my favourite album of theirs, but I’ve thoroughly enjoyed taking Plastic Beach for another spin, there are some gems to be found here that still sit far above the band’s more recent output.8 10
Favourite tracks // Plastic Beach