Review: Gorillaz - Plastic Beach

A well known yet unspoken adage of the music business is 'With great success comes great experimentation.' Or at least that would seem to be the case in 2010 more than ever, where we've already seen a couple high-profile pop stars tinker with proven formulas. On the heels of Lil' Wayne's baffling rock album Rebirth comes Gorillaz latest (and more artistically successful) offering Plastic Beach, a concept album which is named for, and subtly mocks, a landscape of cultural garbage. It's the furthest reach this band has made thus far into new territory, which is saying a lot.

Plastic Beach works and it doesn't. For one thing, producer and lead singer Damon Albarn (credited once-again as cartoon frontman "2D", along with Jamie Hewlett's "Murdoc") still knows how to construct a melody with the greatest of ease. However, you won't find anything with quite the gravitas of “Dirty Harry” or “Feel Good, Inc.” here. Instead what you'll find are spacier than-usual jams replete with head-scratching cameos from the likes of Lou Reed and Bobby Womack. Indeed, hearing Womack's dominating contribution to a Gorillaz record on “Cloud of Unknowing” is somewhat akin to hearing Pink Floyd's "Great Gig in the Sky" for the first time. Much like the rest of Plastic Beach, it requires some time to digest before it can be fully appreciated.

The album also includes contributions from Snoop Dogg on the post-intro opener “Welcome to the World of Plastic Beach” where his laid back rhymes and typical subject matter fit in surprisingly well with the funky Gorillaz oeuvre. Mos Def is the sole vocalist on the alarmingly indulgent “Sweepstakes;” the results of which aren't quite as awe-inspiring as one would hope or as Mos himself might think they are.

Even with experimentation clearly being the main focus, there is plenty to like on Plastic Beach. "Rhinestone Eyes" features Albarn's trademark "over-the-phone" vocals a beat which suggests disco on dextromorphan. The lead single “Stylo” puts less emphasis on it's involvement with Mos Def, to it's credit, and has another oddly explosive turn from Mr. Womack. The song does nicely incorporate a wicked bassline (somewhat reminciscent of LCD Soundsystem's “Get Innocuous”), and works very well; however without the stunning visual aspect of the video (featuring a lovely ham-fisted performance from Bruce Willis) it may come across as lacking some immediacy at first listen.

To be honest, much of the album sounds like yet another Damon Albarn pet project rather than a worthy contribution to the Gorillaz' cartoonish legacy. Make no mistake, the strong smoky melodies and sizzling synths the Gorillaz have come to be known for are still in tact; however, in an unexpected twist, much of the head-nodding menace of the previous albums (Demon Days, Gorillaz) is almost completely abandoned for what seem to be sentimental ballads and lush ambience. Some very good songs make up the majority of Plastic Beach; just don't expect to shake the proverbial butt before letting them grow on you first.

Grade: B

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