The Gorillaz released a new album, “Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez,” on October 25. It’s the virtual band’s seventh studio album since forming in 1998. The Gorillaz is a project by Blur frontman Damon Albarn and artist Jamie Hewlett. Albarn is the main songwriter, singer and producer for the Gorillaz. Hewlett illustrates the band’s cartoon members — Stuart “2-D” Potts, with his missing eyes; green Murdoc; prodigy Noodle; and previously-possessed-by-ghosts Russel.
“Song Machine” consists of 11 tracks, each featuring one artist or more. The deluxe version includes six more songs. Most albums would become bloated with twenty-four musical guests as the artists become overwhelmed with juggling so many sounds. However, this is the way of the Gorillaz.
The virtual group was created so Albarn could explore different genres of music with guests from all over the musical map. As a result, each song on the album works exceptionally well both on its own and as a collection.
Their debut album, “Gorillaz” (2001), did have fewer guests. “Gorillaz” went triple platinum in Europe and featured the lead single “Clint Eastwood.” The band’s second album, “Demon Days” (2005), with the single “Feel Good Inc.,” went double platinum in Europe.
Both singles are the most recognized Gorillaz songs today. In 2010, the group released a third studio album, “Plastic Beach,” focused on environmentalism. The album’s sound shifted from hip-hop toward electropop. While the album received excellent reviews, it hasn’t had a lasting legacy like their first two albums. A slim fourth album, “The Fall,” was recorded on the tour of “Plastic Beach” and was released in fall 2010.
In 2012, the musician and the artist behind the Gorillaz had a falling out, but eventually they worked their differences out and released “Humanz” in 2017. The album was conceived as a party album for the end of the world and written in 2015, imagining that Donald Trump had won the U.S. election (which, to their surprise, he did).
In “Humanz,” Albarn shifted away from the meta-narrative of cartoon band members and toward simply writing engaging music. While the album was good, the large number of collaborators wasn’t as cohesive as previous works. “The Now Now” was another pared-down album recorded on tour, released in 2018.
“Song Machine” also has an enormous number of guests, ranging from Beck to Elton John to ScHoolboy Q. However, Albarn has learned from “Humanz.” “Song Machine” is the best Gorillaz album since 2010.
The album’s lyrics are clever and comment on topical issues, yet it still features the outlandish imagery the band is known for. “Song Machine” also returns to the band’s more hip-hop inflected roots. “Song Machine” sounds like the same band that wrote “Clint Eastwood,” but isn’t stagnant or regressive. It demonstrates musical and creative growth since their debut in 1998.
Current musical trends like lofi and genre-mixing are present in the album. Of course, Gorillaz has blurred categories from the beginning; Albarn started Gorillaz to escape the alternative rock he found himself stuck in as frontman of Blur. Now, Gorillaz explores the frontiers of pop without being defined by a single genre.
The album opens with its namesake, “Strange Timez,” featuring The Cure’s Robert Smith. The gothic sound sets the stage for the album and the unprecedented era it’s been released in. The accompanying YouTube “episode” (music video) references the new travels the band, and the world, are experiencing in 2020.
The four virtual members rocket to a moon painted with Smith’s face (as in Méliès’ 1902 film, “Journey to the Moon”), and they explore different corners of space and time while referencing science fiction movies.
The deliriously fun second song, “The Valley of the Pagans,” featuring the experimental artist Beck, ups the energy of the album. The infectiously upbeat song paints a picture of life in Hollywood with inventive, insane imagery. At one point, Beck sings, “She’s a plastic Cleopatra on a throne of ice / She’s a hemophiliac with a dying battery life.”
“Pac-Man,” with American rapper ScHoolboy Q, is another album highlight. Albarn sings for the first half about stress and leveling up in the game of life, backed by an anxious beat pushing him forward. ScHoolboy Q takes over for the latter half, building up to a dramatic finish.
In this song, it’s clear Albarn doesn’t take himself too seriously on “Song Machine.” Hewlett is also confident in his artistic and storytelling abilities. He plays around with the art throughout the music videos, and in the music video for “Pac-Man,” he’s evidently having a lot of fun — Noodles pines over ScHoolboy Q, and 2-D loses his mind over a game of Pac-Man.
The following song, “Chalk Tablet Towers,” is collaboration at its height. The song features St. Vincent, and it pursues her more alternative inclinations. St. Vincent is conforming more to the Gorillaz aesthetic and dialogues with Albarn’s lyrics, but she’s still holding her own with a powerful voice. At the end of the song, Albarn sings “I won’t be back ’til the end of summer, will you still be there?”
In the following song, 2-D laments, “You have more or less forgotten me this summer.” Featuring Elton John and 6LACK, “The Pink Phantom” is yet another instance of a powerful artistic mix. No single artistic sound is in control. Elton John, 6LACK and Albarn mingle to create a psychedelic song with neo-soul elements.
The song after it, meanwhile, takes deep inspiration from its guests. “Aries,” featuring Peter Hook (of New Order and Joy Division) and Georgia, is considered by many reviewers to be the highlight of the album. It sounds like an 80s rock song updated for 2020.
Later in the album, “Dead Butterflies” featuring Kano and Roxani Arias, and “Désolé” featuring Fatoumata Diawara, show off the Gorillaz’s worldwide influence. The unknown artist Roxani Arias sings in Spanish. The Malian artist Fatoumata Diawara sings in French. The album’s bonus track, “MLS,” featuring American rapper JPEGMAFIA and Japanese girl band CHAI, also has lyrics in Japanese. At this point, Albarn is just showing off his mastery over musical genres by not limiting himself to English-speaking countries and trends.
“Song Machine Season 1: Strange Timez” is a complex creation and a treat to listen to. The album’s title is, of course, a reference both to the pandemic (“Strange Timez”) and to the distinct manner in which the band released the album. The songs were released slowly over 2020, as “episodes,” with accompanying music videos. The collection of all the episodes is thus Season 1. Hopefully, the band will follow this masterpiece with a Season 2 soon.