Gorillaz’s new album, “The Now Now,” has high expectations to meet. The album follows 2017’s brash and politically charged “Humanz,” which was well received by both fans and critics — The Guardian called it “a party album for a world gone mad” — and its deluxe version had an insane 19 tracks (not including interludes). But the album’s follow up, “The Now Now,” doesn’t quite live up to the hype.
Gorillaz has always been known for an eclectic mix of genres, creating innovative pop, rock, rap and electronica music — and often mixing them together to invent something fantastically new and weird. They also have, as Pitchfork puts it, a dystopian “doomsday vibe.”
Gorillaz consists of two permanent members, Damon Albarn and Mike Smith, who played together in their ’90s band Blur. Even more well-known than its human members is Gorillaz’s pretend band: four cartoon characters — 2-D, Murdoc, Noodle and Russel — who have different roles within the band and live out actual storylines through music videos.
Clearly, Gorillaz is a pretty unique band. And the first track from their new album, “Humility,” is initially promising. The song is low-key yet upbeat and rhythmic, and incorporates hints of funk and surf rock. It also doesn’t hurt that it’s super catchy.
However, as the album continues, no track seems to offer anything different. In the past, the band’s ideas haven’t always worked, but they still usually create something completely unique, Unfortunately, on this album, that hasn’t happened.
For instance, “Tranz,” “Kansas” and “Souk Eye” all deliver the same catchy beat yet angsty tone, and utilize retro sounding, synth-heavy melodies. They’re minimalist, rhythmic and enjoyable. But there are big problems. Each of these songs pretty much takes a few bars and repeats them over and over; you could cut chunks out without really noticing. Furthermore, listening to the album creates a feeling of just listening to one long track. With a couple of exceptions, the tracks are just not memorable.
That’s mostly due to a lack anything really imaginative, experimental or varied. The “doomsday vibe” is still there, but gone is the guitar, spoken word, rap and general strangeness. Instead, “The Now Now” delivers low-fi, funk-influenced new wave electronica and not much else, switching between moody, reflective songs that create an ambient pathos in the vein of indie band Glass Animals, and upbeat disco-esque pop like that of late 2000s musician Robyn.
Sure, it’s well put together and genuinely a great listen — Gorillaz really know how to get the most out of a synthesizer — but it means the album’s 11 tracks just kind of blur (pun intended) into one big chilled out synth-fest.
It also doesn’t help that the normal plethora of awesome guest spots are gone. In contrast to previous albums, which utilized the diverse talents of artists such as Grace Jones, Lou Reed and Mos Def, the only featured artists you really notice on “The Now Now” are Snoop Dogg and Chicago house pioneer Jamie Principle, who contribute to the mediocre “Hollywood.”
Their talents feel wasted here; the track is a world away from the experimental and innovative ways Gorillaz have used rap in the past, like in 2001 single “Clint Eastwood” and delightfully weird “Superfast Jellyfish.” In fact, “Hollywood” is the only track on the album that features rap at all — evidence of how homogenous the sound is throughout.
There’s definitely high points too, though. For one, “The Now Now” is probably Gorillaz’s most dance-able album, as some songs are focused almost entirely around a beat. In fact, in some ways, the stripped back style and focus on rhythm really works — it comes off as an interesting experiment in dialing things down to get to the bare musical essentials.
For instance, the acoustic “Idaho” is quiet and introspective, harking back to pessimistic past pieces like 2005’s “El Mañana.” Both the sparse notes and the thoughtful, nostalgic lyrics — like “Every day I look out on the bus / At silver linings getting lost” — create a feeling of pathos and beauty.
On the other side of the coin, “Lake Zurich” is a great piece of upbeat, almost tacky ’80s style electronica that really works; its staccato rhythm paired with synthy harmonies is reminiscent of the best parts of new wave band Metronomy, with hints of Radiohead as well as Gorillaz’s own hip-hop and techno influenced song “Stylo”. It’s arguably the best track of the album.
The spacey, sweeping melodies of “Sorcererz” are also a return to the great parts of the band, revealing quick glimpses at the soaring, sad beauty of 2010 track “On Melancholy Hill”. And the totally engrossing “Magic City” has the heart that this album sometimes lacks, with its emotional vocals creating a sense of longing.
But despite these tracks having some awesome elements, overall the main thing that stands out about “The Now Now” is its sameness. There’s no bad tracks, and the album as a whole has good ideas, but it does nothing with them. It almost feels unfinished. The fact that it’s actually pretty good makes it all the more frustrating to listen to.
Perhaps it’s so underwhelming because, as Albarn admitted, the album was made in a rush so the band would have new material for upcoming concerts. That makes sense since “The Now Now” is probably most similar to 2010 album “The Fall,” which Albarn and Smith made to kill time using an iPad. However “The Fall” was also conceptual and interesting in a way that this album isn’t. So perhaps Gorillaz have simply run out of steam.
At its best, the “The Now Now” is great example of chilled, ’80s influenced electronica, and plays like the best parts of contemporary bands such as Metronomy, Glass Animals and Robyn. But at its worst, it’s elevator music. The album just isn’t daring; every track finds a good hook and then, infuriatingly, just stickswith it. In playing it so safe, all the band’s usual strangeness and enthusiasm seem absent. Ultimately “The Now Now” simply doesn’t deliver on its title. It may be a nice listen, but there’s nothing new or original here.