Over the 20-year history of Gorillaz, the medium has always very much been the message. Throughout their career – the origins as a virtual band in the post-Britpop rockstar era; their deconstructing of pop with concept-heavy, self-mythologised records (see: 2010’s ‘Plastic Beach’); and their throwing a debauched party during the rapture (2017’s ‘Humanz’) – messrs Albarn and Hewlett have made clear that they have no desire to repeat themselves, nor do things the boring way.
Upon its announcement, ‘Song Machine: Season One – Strange Timez’ seemed like yet another hint in the thinking that the album format acts only as an obstacle. This project’s release began with ‘Momentary Bliss’ in January, a spacious punk rager with Slowthai and Slaves. The song – or Episode, as they presented it – was accompanied by skits and a video, virtual member Russell Hobbs calling the process “a whole new way of doing what we do, Gorillaz breaking the mould ’cause the mould got old.”
It’s surprising, then, that to wrap up ‘Song Machine”s first season, the seven episode’s musical offerings have been collected into a traditional album format. With the skits omitted, two versions of this collection have been released: 12 songs on the standard issue (over half of which have been released so far) and another five for the deluxe edition. But it’s perhaps an opportunity to please everyone, this. For the diehards, the storylines and format are anything but straight-forward; for those just here for the tunes, there’s a more traditional listening experience with which they pull together fruitful recording sessions.
‘Strange Timez’ is likely to satisfy both camps. It’s a varied affair that pulls from Albarn and the band’s perchance for exploration: punk rock sits effortlessly next to glitzy piano ballads, while playful hip-hop and melancholic post-rave ambience soothe our pounding heads. It’s a further reminder that while the post-genre mindset is now crucial to mainstream success, Gorillaz have always been ken to encourage emerging artists to embrace their diverse inspirations.
2018’s ‘The Now Now’ was a pared-back exercise, written on tour and with guests kept to a minimum, but ‘Strange Timez’s real triumph is in the curation of its featured artists – a flagrant disregard for the rule of six has resulted in some spectacular moments. On the title track, The Cure’s Robert Smith sends his haunting vocals from whatever dimension he’s seemingly trapped in, while Malian heavyweight Fatoumata Diawara’s powerhouse performance dominates the groovy ‘Désolé’.
Beck revives his funky white boy rapping on the ‘The Valley of the Pagans’, where he and Albarn conclude that enduring the vapid showbiz life is worth it to be in “total control” and “to have a perfect song” in their back pocket. This is, arguably, one of them. There’s more fun to be had with St. Vincent on ‘Chalk Tablet Towers’, where the New York alt. pop hero sings of wanting to get high, while Albarn retains a sense of melancholy – the juxtaposition is oddly thrilling.
‘Aries’, meanwhile, may not just be the strongest song on the album, but perhaps one of the band’s finest in a decade. Produced and written with UK dance-pop maestro Georgia and packing a bassline from Peter Hook that conjures the vibrancy of New Order’s ‘Power, Corruption & Lies’ with shocking ease, it also exudes hints of 2010’s ‘On Melancholy Hill’ throughout. Albarn is on top form, too, his opening lines painting a stunning picture: “I’m looking out at a volcano / Trying to read the world today / And see where you’re at”.
Only towards the end of the deluxe edition does the enthusiasm wane, but there are still gems to be found. ‘Opium’s relentless vibrancy is dancefloor dynamite, while the late, great afrobeat pionner Tony Allen (who drummed in another of Albarn’s bands, The Good, The Bad & The Queen) brings magic to Skepta collaboration ‘How Far?’ The single’s artwork features the virtual members solemnly facing a photo of Allen, a reminder of Gorillaz’s ability to demonstrate their sentiment and craft both musically and visually.
‘Strange Timez’ is yet another worthwhile endeavour, the band keen not just to match the skill and pace of modern pop outlets, but to outlast the competitors. Whether your consumption method was more traditional, or you’re perhaps tempted to binge every episode in this album format, there’s joy aplenty here.
Release date: October 23
Record label: Parlophone