Gorillaz “Humanz” review: a concept of a concept album

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Album cover for Humanz. Jamie Hewlett asks if these characters are more human than us, but with respect, he doesn’t make a clear comparison.

Gorillaz is back with yet another doomsday premise: a party during the end of the world. Shockingly different, right? From releasing demons and exploring hell in Demon Days to the messy synthetic paradise of Plastic Beach, it’s not anything distinct from their statements on the world throughout their career. I’m a bit late to the party here, this album dropped April 28 2017, but I really wanted to review this record because Gorillaz holds a special place in my heart and I love concept albums…but this one didn’t work for me.

So what’s the long and short of this album? The ideas within the record aren’t fully realized: there isn’t enough for listeners to go off of to understand what’s happening in the songs or how it connects to the Gorillaz themselves. It’s more a mixtape than an album, and it’s unpolished compared to their usual standard. It’s a concept of a concept album, a couple of crumbs left on the floor of a cake that’s already been cleaned up. “Humanz” has its moment(z), but it’s honestly a mess.

Here’s the narrative: “Humanz” is a nightmare of the end of the world due to future nationalistic politics in a distant America far, far away. Human beings are becoming more than human here: hence the title “Humanz“. The implication is that people are transitioning into robots. To quote Gorillaz co-creator Jamie Hewlett: “Are we human or are we humanz? Have we lost the ability to think for ourselves, do we just believe what we’re told?”

But don’t take it from me, take it from Damon Albarn on BBC1:

“The album came from this dark fantasy that came into my head the beginning of last year, which was imagining the weirdest, unpredictable thing happening that changes everything about the world. How will you feel on that night? How will you go out – will you get drunk, will you stay at home, watch TV, talk to people? I suppose we were imagining Donald Trump. The album’s not about Trump at all, but it was imagining that happening, in a way, that was our dark fantasy. And unfortunately it became reality. It’s a party record, a club record. But it’s got this weird darkness about it.”

However, this record doesn’t have much more interesting to offer. Many of the songs plateau in their dynamics and don’t go any further then their climax a minute and a half in. For a comeback after six years of not releasing a new album, Gorillaz’s “Humanz” is a tediously vague commentary about technological abuses, societal passivity and decay. It’s a palette of broody synths, unsatisfactory drums, and songs that sound almost entirely improvisational and not in a good way.

The band Gorillaz, for me, is incredible at being challenging and making crisply made otherworldly music that demands another listen and appreciation, but this album is arguably boring. The production value on this record is poor and many songs should have been taken back to the drawing board. The sentiments that come off of it of this thematically inconsistent album are nice, but come off as cheesy platitudes.

“We’ve got the power to be loving each other, no matter what happens. We’ve got the power to do that.” – “We Got The Power“, Gorillaz.

Seriously, Damon? Is this supposed to be deep?

It’s true that as people we’ve got the power to be loving each other no matter what, Damon Albarn, but…eh, if you would have conveyed a better apocalyptic, politically charged world, perhaps I would feel more empowered by these clunky vocal layers on “We Got The Power”. I feel like this album was made for another generation, because the production on it feels like a forced garish weirdness. Perhaps people who appreciate the days of Blur and Oasis and Brit Pop would like this better, because for me, this particular track and even the whole album doesn’t click or carry the same weight as it should.

Not only that, but the album doesn’t even fully commit to its political statements. Every mention of Trump has been edited out of every track he was mentioned on by Damon Albarn even though the album’s conception was imagining a Trump presidency. On the base album, the most political language we have is off of “Ascension” and “Saturn Barz“, and vague references off of other songs that aren’t with obvious power. By choosing not to polarize fans by editing out any mention of Trump with their new release, they remove their teeth and come short of saying really anything holistically serious.

“The album lacks in structure and plays more like a playlist or a mixtape rather than an album; the power behind what the songs could have had are lost unless listened to individually. This results in the record tapering off and leaves me with a strong desire to just turn it off.”

photo-credit-j-c.-hewlett-extralarge_1490309228739_wide-96e32f2387064e7e65bc33533d48a6b41dd6fb17-s800-c85It’s certainly a party pop record, but there’s more intricate tracks heard on Top 40 that are slightly more complex but aren’t as listenable. For a band that I see as consistently going against the tide with its alt-pop tendencies, it suffers the gaudy sins of the music it emulates. For example “Busted & Blue” and “Sex Murder Party” are minimalistic and don’t come across well. While I like “Busted & Blue”, the delivery of the vocals in both tracks are sad and morose but don’t evoke much emotion, if at all. In fact, by the time “Sex Murder Party” comes on, I’m thinking about music I could be listening to besides this.

However, not every song is so terrible. I really liked the intentional use of a heavier female presence on the record, especially with Grace Jones ethereal presence on “Charger“. The revving guitars and Damon’s sassy delivery is seriously one of the best moments on this entire album. The singles (minus “We Got The Power“) remain some of the best parts about the record. “Ascension” sets the tone and sprints forward into the album with politically charged rhetoric. “Strobelite” is a catchy & funky highlight that’s futuristic and fun. While D.R.A.M. is underused in this release as only backing vocals, “Andromeda” is still one of the better and sweeter songs off the album. “Hallejuah Money” isn’t my favorite, but grew on me as a slow paced sardonic satire. My favorite track is “Out of Body” with Kilo Kish. It’s a song that hooks into you and doesn’t let go with Kilo’s playful delivery.

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From left to right, Russel, Noodle, 2D, Murdoc. I adore this art style.

There are a ton of features across “Humanz“, but like a party you don’t know anyone at, it’s awkward especially if everyone realizes they’re going to die. The only people you know are 2D, Murdoc, Russel and Noodle, but the presence of the animated characters are strangely absent. The featuring of other artists have been used as mouthpieces for character perspectives, but with the focus on the collaborators it feels less Gorillaz and more on separate voices. Is this what Jamie Hewlett meant by turning into Humanz? Seems like a flimsy and subpar explanation for not having a followable and understandable narrative.

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If only the album were as sleek and polished as this art, perhaps reception for this record would have been better.

This results in me feeling like the record is an almost uninspired Damon Albarn solo project that’s only Gorillaz by name, and there’s proof to back that claim up. Upon inspection on a lyrics website, Genius, an online platform for annotating and explaining the meaning behind music, it’s more Damon than the actual band. According to fans who annotated the lyrics, the perspective of the interludes of the record aren’t 2D or Murdoc, but actually a character off of Damon Albarn’s 2014 solo record “Everyday Robots“. This album creates a dark atmosphere for an end of the world party, but the band dips as soon as they appear and you’re left with people/artists you barely know that are trying to make final profound statements to an audience that is on a completely different level. The alienation doesn’t help the record or make it all that immersive, it makes it almost unlistenable.

For example, the track “Submission” has a Danny Brown verse that abruptly springs comes into the song with his abrasive, twangy vocals backed by a high pitched whirring that drives into your skull. Brown’s voice isn’t for everyone, but the use of his feature is done in a way that makes us submit to the insanity in a less than flattering way. The lyrics suggest the last rebellion of a beaten down drug addict who can’t see any escape from an oppressive government system and loses his patience for it all. Conceptually, the song is a cool idea and using Brown here makes sense to capture the frantic despotism. However, if this end of times scenario is a to be a metaphor for real world issues, it makes the audience submissive to it. “Submission” is a track that is shoved down our throats instead of with nuance, and without appeal.

For other songs, like “Carnival” or “She’s My Collar” reach a plateau that they never rise from with few exceptions. The record reeks of music that needs more polish before it fizzles out. It ends up beating the concepts they start out with into oblivion. The album lacks in structure and plays more like a playlist or a mixtape rather than an album; the power behind what the songs could have had are lost unless listened to individually. This results in the record tapering off and leaves me with a strong desire to just turn it off.

If you like challenging and weird, this might be something to pick up. However, this album is just not good. It’s got some bangers worth listening to on Spotify or picking up on iTunes but as an album it’s not worth the purchase. The concept is cool but it’s not consistent, and the tracks aren’t that dynamic, so the record loses direction.

The singles are the selling point. Do not buy. I don’t want to sit behind a paywall of $20-$300 (see super deluxe vinyl edition) to just understand Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett’s vague statement on what humanity is becoming.

OVERALL SCORE:

5.5/10

Fave tracks: Ascension, Strobelite, Saturn Barz, Charger, Andromeda, Let Me Out, Hallelujah Money, The Apprentice,  Out of Body.

Hated: Momentz, Sex Murder Party, Submission, every Intermission, We Got The Power, Halfway to the Halfway House.

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