For the first time in his career, we find Damon Albarn on the back foot. Since he and Blur swooned their way onto the scene in the early ‘90s, Albarn’s discography is remarkably free of absolute missteps. Sure, Blur didn’t cover themselves in glory on the half-arsed 2003 album ‘Think Tank’, and who actually has listened to much-derided side-project The Good, The Bad and The Queen. Gorillaz’ last album, 2017’s ‘Humanz’, however, is where things get a bit tricky.
Released six years after their last album ‘The Fall’, it’s fair to say that people were just a little bit excited. In a time of political turmoil, the madness of the world’s sketchiest band felt sorely needed. Hopefully, ‘Humanz’ was going to help us make sense of the world, too. It didn’t, sadly. For fans and causals alike, it felt like Albarn slipped into the background too often, allowing guests like Noel Gallagher, Popcaan and Rag’N’Bone Man take the lead in places. The band have wilfully chosen to occupy their space in another dimension throughout their career, but ‘Humanz’ got caught in the cosmic doorway.
‘The Now Now’, then, is a welcome prospect. Their sixth album is made of 11-tracks recorded by Damon Albarn with producer James Ford in London earlier this year. He did so, mainly, because it “gives him a reason to go on tour” this year. The cynic in you will want to label this album as a quick cash grab, but you absolutely shouldn’t, it’s much more than measured release than that.
The obvious comparison to this record is ‘The Fall’, their fourth studio album. Released nine months after the grandiose ‘Plastic Beach’ in 2010, it was recorded on tour by Albarn largely on his iPad as they undertook their biggest US tour yet. It boasted just one feature, too. The late, great Bobby Womack popped up on ‘Bobby In Phoenix’ following his commanding appearance on ‘Plastic Beach’s’ lead single ‘Stylo’. It resulted in an album that proved to be a refreshingly lo-fi listen that was beloved by fans, but largely ignored by the mainstream.
On ‘The Now Now’, they follow the map they carved out back then but with a bit more swagger. Credited guests are limited to Snoop Dogg, soul legend George Benson and US house pioneer Jamie Principle. Like ‘The Fall’, it proudly displays its passport stamps, with songs like ‘Kansas’, ‘Hollywood’ and ‘Idaho’ appearing on the tracklist. Most importantly, it feels like Albarn and his alter-ego, 2D have reclaimed their place centre-stage.
The musical output of the cartoon band – made up of characters 2D, Murdoc, Noodle and Russel – works in tandem with their current storyline. As told in the latest instalment to Gorillaz’ highly entertaining mythology, their wicked bassist Murdoc is banged up in Wormwood Scrubs, and ‘The Now Now’ is the product of the sensitive 2D reprising his role as the band’s creative driving force. After the bonkers apocalyptic house party of the last record, it’s about recalibrating with modern life – away from bad influences.
Albarn’s lyrics are more introspective as a result. ‘Humility’, a G-Funk summer bop is paired with dreary lines about loneliness: “I don’t want this isolation/See the state I’m in now?”. Meanwhile, ‘Kansas’ and ‘Fireflies’ is as reflective as anything that appears on Blur’s morose 1999 masterpiece, ‘13’. A welcome and honest release for a band that has too often favoured visual elements over relatable, dare we say it, human lyrics.
‘The Now Now’ is a spritely listen. Where ‘Humanz’ leaned too heavily on swampy, generic hip-hop beats (‘Saturnz Barz’, ‘Submission’), ‘The Now Now’ prides itself on making 11 pop tracks that zip with energy, passion and an abundance of ideas. Some are stripped right down to their core and are all the better for it, like the largely instrumental numbers ‘Lake Zurich’ and ‘One Percent’.
20 years after the outlines of the band was first sketched by co-creator Jamie Hewlett, the band clearly still stands as a vivid creative outlet for Albarn. He’s managed to tap into the chaotic ethos so electrifying and unpredictable first time round, and reanimate the band’s fortunes in dazzling fashion.