More isn’t always better. That’s something you could readily disagree with when faced with the ever-changing roster of guests who have joined the world-conquering virtual band Gorillaz. But upon seeing the guest list for Humanz – the band’s first proper album in seven years – its natural little concerned that flesh-and-blood band leader, Damon Albarn, might just have overdone it this time. Humanz is nothing if not bold in concept and execution. But, unfortunately, it lacks the subtle alchemy that made the band’s last three studio albums so spectacular.
Humanz is billed as a party record for a world gone nutz. It brings together an outlandish mixture of house music veterans (Peven Everett, Jamie Principle), rappers (Vince Staples, Danny Brown), new-age R&B stars (Kali Uchis, Kelela), rock leaders (Noel Gallagher, Jehnny Beth), and music legends (Grace Jones, Carly Simon), among others.
In interviews, Albarn spoke about being greatly inspired by Earth, Wind & Fire, and the humble synthesiser had played with as a child. It is from this place that Humanz most immediate excitement springs from. ‘Strobelite’ is a glorious combination of early 80s synth and head-bobbing hand caps, topped off by enchanting vocals from Peven Everett. ‘Andromeda’, which features US rapper-singer DRAM, is a dance track infused with otherworldly qualities. ‘Saturnz Barz’ is a left-field, dark-night-of-the-soul type track that with unexpected, sobering honesty from reggae artist Popcaan.
Highlights such as these are dotted throughout this gargantuan album. The trouble is it’s hard to shake the feeling that, on a lengthy project, some tracks were best left out (saved for a fan-pleasing B‑sides collection), and those that remain blended together with more care by Albarn and his co-producers, The Twilite Tone and Remi Kabaka. ‘Momentz (feat. De La Soul)’, though inventive, is a challenge for even the most die-hard fan. ‘Carnival’ and ‘Sex Murder Party’ aren’t as imaginative as they sound. And, compared to Gorillaz previous work, album closer (on the standard edition), ‘We Got the Power (feat. Jehnny Beth)’, is all too brisk.
This concoction makes Humanz a difficult album to fall in love with to the magnitude of Demon Days or Plastic Beach. Whatever you think of those albums, they each have a glorious arc to them. Humanz, on the other hand, is an album stuffed to bursting with ideas and sounds that captivate (‘Ascension (feat. Vince Stapes)’, ‘Let Me Out (feat. Mavis Staples & Pusha T)’, ‘Submission (feat. Danny Brown & Kelela)’, ‘Busted and Blue’) – especially when the deluxe edition is taken into account, with Ray Blk, Kilo Kish and Zebra Katz all offering deal-making guest contributions. Yet, even though this party has many highlights, it stops short of unforgettable.
Gorillaz has always been a vehicle for Albarn, and co-creator and artist Jamie Hewlett, to push the envelope, and introduce music that wouldn’t normally stand half a chance when offered to mainstream audiences. Albarn hasn’t exercised the expert focus he has done with his previous off-the-wall ideas. Still, even with its warts, Gorillaz’ latest incarceration is an energetic, provocative, foot-stomping alternative pop celebration.
Humanz is out now on Parlophone Records.
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Image: Jamie Hewlett