Your age will likely dictate the answer to the following question: is Damon Albarn that guy from Blur, or that guy from Gorillaz? In the UK and Europe, his role as the frontman of the Britpop titans is unquestioned: no surprise the upcoming reunion is concentrated around dates at Wembley Stadium in London and at festivals across the continent’s mainland.
But elsewhere, an intriguing trend has emerged: Albarn’s dedication to the pop project has remained steadfast. He’s now been spearheading Gorillaz for over two decades, and seems happy enough to take on the growing public-facing leading role as time proceeds. Tellingly, when Billie Eilish brought him onstage for a collaboration during her Coachella headline set in 2022, they plumped for a cover ‘Feel Good Inc’, and she professed her love for the once-cartoon creation. He appeared sheepish, but there must be an element of vindication, too; this is no side-project, but the real deal.
That shift might go some ways to explaining ‘Cracker Island’s success. Since their 2017 comeback album ‘Humanz’, the band have dabbled in various sounds and techniques: whether it be breezy lo-fi pop (‘The Now Now’, 2018) or innovative structures (‘Song Machine: Series One’, 2020). The electrified, internet-ready sounds they pioneered in their first act now dominate charts and streaming platforms. The band’s influence is felt in a new generation of musicians: Sad Night Dynamite, Riovaz, Nonô, to name but a few.
And while ‘Cracker Island’ doesn’t exactly ape a sound that’s proving already-popular, it does a fine job of reminding everyone where much of the limitless thinking came from. Gorillaz take snapshots of a diverse music scene – from psych-fused pop to reggaeton – and put a unique spin on it. There’s no broad concept or industry-busting roll-out, just 10 pristine, richly satisfying tracks; no more, no less.
‘Cracker Island’s title track and ‘New Gold’ must now be considered alongside their best work: the latter enlists a catchy vocal hook from Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker, while Thundercat’s freaky take on funk and jazz powers the former. The spritely runtime allows for fewer guests, but those who do appear make mighty efforts: Stevie Nicks and Albarn’s vocals intertwine wonderfully for ‘Oil’, as does Adeleye Omotayo’s on ‘Silent Running’, even if there’s little to distinguish the production from those chasing a similar ‘80s-indebted, maximalist pop sound.
Bad Bunny’s appearance proves the most intriguing, though. On ‘Tormenta’, the band tap into one of the few genres they’ve yet to venture into, carefully meshing their refined sound with Latin beats. Amidst the beachy tones, the Puerto Rican rapper delivers one of the more affecting lines on a Gorillaz song: “Si el amor nunca ha sido perfecto / Ojalá y sea por siempre este momento” he sighs, admitting that while love is never perfect or easy, he seeks just one last moment together.
The loose narrative structure suits both creative and listener: Albarn and his team appear unburdened by living up to a concept, and instead turn in a consistently enjoyable record that shows why they remain relevant so far into their career. A band that was once considered mucking about on the periphery of pop are now very much defining the present and inspiring the future. You could be doing much worse for album eight, eh?
- Release date: February 24, 2023
- Record label: Parlophone