Back in the 80’s a year like 2010 would have been imagined mostly in terms of jet-powered backpacks, robotic house servants, interstellar space travel, perhaps some sort of “beam me up” mechanism, basically one big, happy orgy of technology-propelled human contentment.
Well I’m still waiting for my jet-powered backpack. In the meantime, I’m noticing that the “future” isn’t all it was cracked up to be.
Turns out our natural resources are not inexhaustible after all. We’ve got pollution issues, energy shortages, mind-numbing commercialism on one end and shameless exploitation of human labor on the other. As for technology, it has its advantages, sure, but some would say it’s having troubling effects on old school human interaction.
Okay, so here’s the good news: Gorillaz is part of this future as well and they’re here now with their third album, Plastic Beach, a sprawling modern musical collaboration, eclectically sourced yet tightly focused, sonically ambitious and legitimately poetic, not just a “concept” album but a sustained artistic statement about the major themes of our times.
The “plastic beach,” it seems, could be a massive floating island of garbage in the middle of the ocean. Jamie Hewlett’s cover artwork shows the plastic refuse rising up into a mushroom-cloud shaped mountain which supports some sort of tacky architectural monstrosity that might well occupy the hills over the Malibu coast. A superficial show of wealth built on the most questionable of foundations. I wouldn’t wanna be gridlocked on PCH when it all comes crashing down. But if I was I’d very likely be listening to this album.
Plastic Beach may not be as emotionally resonant as LCD Soundsystem’s The Sound of Silver and it may not be quite as musically ground-breaking as Radiohead’s Kid A, but it’s in the ballpark, and that’s saying something. Like those two modern masterpieces, Plastic Beach, for all of its identifiable influences, sounds like the future.
Damon Albarn, the musical maestro behind Gorillaz, creates complex but sneaky-catchy electronic soundscapes and balances out his technology-heavy approach by bringing in some of the world’s most distinctive human voices. Snoop Dogg kicks it off on “Welcome to the World of the Plastic Beach” and is followed by a parade of world class vocalists like Mos Def, Bashy and Kano, De La Soul, Gruff Rhys, Lou Reed, Bobby Womack and the Japanese singer Yukimi Nagano.
On “Superfast Jellyfish” De La Soul and Gruff Rhys offer a hilariously funky take on fast-food consumption. Nagano stands out on a pair of great duets with Albarn including the dreamy “To Binge,” which sounds like space age bachelor pad music for Leonard Cohen fans. Former Clash guitarist Mick Jones makes a notable appearance as well, laying down a stellar intro to “Plastic Beach.” And then there’s Albarn himself taking the reins on some of the album’s best tracks, including “Rhinestone Eyes.”
Through it all, the album takes an uncompromising look at everything from environmental degradation to sweatshop workers to the impact of technology on human relationships. On “Broken” Albarn sings, “It’s by the light/Of the plasma springs/ We keep switched on/All through the night while we sleep…And the space has been broken/Broken/ Our love/ Broken.”
But there’s a notable strain of optimism as well. For all the technological prowess of Albarn’s sound, there’s always a human voice straining to break through, none more human than Bobby Womack, alone on “Cloud of Unknowing,” when he sings, “Every satellite up here is watching/But I was here from the very start/Trying to find a way to your heart.” Turns out the future isn’t about jet-powered backpacks after all. It’s about trying to get back to where we started.