If you were to invent a pop act right now, where would you begin? Well, human beings take too many drugs and start boo-hooing when they don’t get their own way, so you’d create something, like a cartoon character, to front the whole shebang. You’d do something to make sure The Kids’ parents didn’t understand the appeal – it’s the punk rock way, after all. And since we live in such modern times, you’d promote this new popstar not through the conventional channels, like the gig circuit or CD:UK, but through some semi-interactive platform, to really make the whole thing come alive. You’d pair your popstar with the world’s most can’t-get-out-of-your-headable tune, and once the entire project reached critical mass, you’d whack out a single. Congratulations: you’ve just invented the Crazy Frog. You are, to all intents and purposes, a cunt.
Of course, nobody would suggest that Damon Albarn is a cunt – he was far too pretty in his twenties to ever be truly hateable – but if you need proof of how far we’ve come since the first Gorillaz album dropped four years ago, look no further than how unextraordinary the band’s high concept shenanigans seem now. We don’t think, ‘Hold your horses, cartoon characters can’t make albums’ – we just wonder how Gorillaz sold so many albums in the states when 2D’s teeth were such a state. Gorillaz, now, are no more than a normal band. For this second album the music steps up a gear to compensate for that conceptual shortfall by conjuring a unique mix that’s darker but often more accessible than its predecessor and strutting around very much like the ultimate pop album, but that’s not the only significant development.
Where 2001’s ‘Gorillaz’ began life as an elaborate and self-indulgent vanity project and accidentally turned out to be quite good to the tune of six million copies sold, ‘Demon Days’ is, alongside the Coldplay album, one of 2005’s biggest bankers for EMI. None of this is a happy accident, and nothing has been left to chance. It speaks volumes that legal downloads of the splendid lead single ‘Feel Good Inc’ became chart eligible – thanks to a limited run of vinyl, issued to record shops simply to satisfy chart regulations – in the very week that downloads first qualified in the UK charts. Reckon Damon sat at home and thought of that one? Already, the Gorillaz’ return feels less like a group of mavericks operating in some musical wasteland on the edge of civilisationetcetcetc and more as if every boardroom in the Western world has sprung to life with marketing gurus scribbling ‘MAINSTREAM VS UNDERGROUND’, ‘ASDA BUYERS VS PUNK KIDZ’ on flipcharts. The biggest challenge, given the success of the first album, must undoubtedly have been this: how do you manufacture spontaneity?
They haven’t been short of ideas. Practicality, sadly, has got in the way of the band embarking on a series of gorilla gigs (although you should probably approach your local Dixons window display with caution over the next few months). Instead, a similarly self-conscious culture-jamming exercise was set in motion, through which a viral-type campaign encouraged fans to stick anti-celebrity ‘Reject False Icons’ stickers on billboards. One fan recently noted, in their online diary: “Since it’s so close to the actual release date I plan on going to the mall this week, and writing ‘Reject False Icons’ on some bathroom stalls. Have to do my part, and trust me, I’m not the only one who has done this… I’m part of a ‘team’ who does this kind of thing every day. Pretty exciting actually.”
‘Exciting.’ Make no mistake, this is as sophisticated and insidious as the ‘street teams’ orchestrated for bands like Busted and McFly, except at least that lot get a free frisbee for their troubles. Alongside (but hamfistedly at odds with) the ‘Reject False Icons’ campaign, Gorillaz also launched their ‘Search For A Star’ online campaign, which incorrectly billed itself as the first online-only talent search. Either it was Gorillaz’ intention to eventually tell applicants ‘Look, Michelle McManus isn’t really that bad – what you’ve done is exactly what she did’, or this supposed satire of the fame game was simply in place to have a laugh at the expense of the band’s fans. At the very least, those fans are being used to promote ‘Demon Days’, just like the fans who bought the ‘collectable’ limited edition ‘Feel Good Inc’ vinyl were used to create acres of publicity when the single charted.
Have those fans been cheated? Have we all been cheated? It all becomes irrelevant as soon as you press play, because beyond the mixed messages and startling lack of logic in the album’s promotion, ‘Demon Days’ may end 2005 as one of the year’s most celebrated albums. Before you even consider the sonic and melodic innovation paraded through the album there’s so much crammed into each of these fifteen songs (without any one of them sounding overproduced or cluttered) that repeated listening is a must. With ‘Demon Days’, repeated listening is like throwing a dolphin a fire escape – entertaining the first time, impossible to predict the outcome on each subsequent attempt. There’s always something new to enjoy.
Instrumental in this album’s charm is Dangermouse’s production, which propels the album far beyond the limits of its predecessor; the standard Gorillaz sonic motifs (light-headed dub, left-of-centre electronic flourishes, caricatured wailing from another planet and the irresistible thud of a thousand bass bins) remain, but there’s a seemingly unselfconscious desire from all parties to innovate within the realms of the modern pop song. They succeed at every turn, and the inevitable rolecall of guest stars keep it moving. With the exception of the London Community Gospel Choir, who’d arguably turn up to the recording of an envelope being opened, this is an unexpected and imaginatively-plucked succession of cameos, taking in De La Soul, Martina Topley-Bird, Neneh Cherry (on the droopily spectacular ‘Kids With Guns’), Roots Manuva (on ‘All Alone’, the most ‘Gorillaz’-sounding track on the album), Ike ‘nice guy’ Turner, Dennis Hopper… Even the score from ‘Dawn Of The Dead’ pops in to say a spooky hello at the album’s outset.
We also find Shaun Ryder sounding genuinely relevant for the first time in fifteen years, in an electronic pop masterpiece called ‘DARE’. With the arguable exception of ‘O Green World’ (whose chorus lyric, “Uhhh-uhhhhh-uuhhhhh-uhhhh-uh”, sounds like Jimmy Saville at the dentist), ‘DARE’ is the finest moment on an album which never drops below total brilliance: it’s got more hooks than a New Order bassist lookalike convention and will be absolutely everywhere this summer.
If you believe Gorillaz are genuinely inverting popular culture you probably also think Apple present some ‘cool’ sort of alternative to Microsoft, but while ‘Demon Days’ is as fastidiously packaged and cynically promoted as your average Shania Twain release, it’s an honest overview of the rarely-accepted fact that it never really is all about the music, even when the music’s this extraordinary. ‘Demon Days’ is also just a few IQ points away from being as clever as it thinks it is. Pretty clever.