Gorillaz’s newest release, Plastic Beach, is unmistakably pop.
But confined to current and somewhat mistaken definitions of the genre, this is either an insult or just plain wrong. Indie music buffs might denounce such a claim, pointing to the many guest appearances — from progressive artists such as De La Soul and Mos Def — as well as the many flashes of originality in song structure and lyrical form.
Fans of the mainstream might cock their heads at this same assertion, offering the fact that it doesn’t sound like Jason Derülo as a rebuttal. But regardless of whose side you’re on, when it comes down to it, Plastic Beach is pop music at its postmodern finest.
For one thing, the catchy hooks are ever-present, and they are executed with the charm and proficiency that the “virtual band” — led primarily by Damon Albarn of Blur — has already demonstrated in hits such as “Feel Good Inc.” and “Clint Eastwood.”
Cultural critic Simon Frith suggests that pop music places a focus on recording, production and technology over live performance, and there could not be a more fitting description of Gorillaz, a band that has only performed live a handful of times and even then were masked by large screens. Gorillaz’s true talent manifests itself in studio-crafted compositions such as the brilliant “On Melancholy Hill,” which swirls with a pseudo-chillwave, four-to-the-floor beat and contains a veritable sea of synthesizers recalling the mellower side of Daft Punk. And just try not to dance along with the hypnotic single “Stylo,” which is made even more fascinating by singer-songwriter Bobby Womack’s soulful belting and a well-timed rap by Mos Def in which his words drop over a mildly retro, electronic bass beat.
With the recognizable fusion of melodic lines and simple harmonies paired with a verse-chorus-verse song structure, Plastic Beach makes use of the formulas pop audiences have come to love. The feel-good simplicity of the album — those familiar chord progressions that are the equivalent of musical comfort food — hammers it all home.
Most of the album’s songs, like the ethereal “Empire Ants,” aren’t mind-bending, but dispersed throughout these effortless gems are other tracks that are thought provoking and need some getting used to in order to fully enjoy. Examples include the impeccably quirky “Rhinestone Eyes,” which declares, Your love’s like rhinestones falling from the sky / That’s electric / With future pixels in factories far away / Here we go again in Albarn’s signature monotone singing-speaking voice. Even in these more difficult tracks, it’s evident that experimentation isn’t the only priority. Gorillaz intertwines clarity of melody with the complexity of abstraction, taking it to the cliff’s edge of intricacy without turning off the listener in the process.
The end result is an album that is both immediately accessible and continuously challenging, poppy without being patronizing and catchy without being stagnantly repetitive. This is, as one can imagine, quite the feat.
It’s much easier to make an album that’s more “out there” than Pluto and pass it off as originality and expertise. It’s also simpler to throw down some Auto-Tuned R&B vocals over a slick, already-popular sample and call it a day. But with respect to both of these methodologies, it is much more difficult to craft a complex, talented piece of art under a veil of simplicity that hooks a listener and keeps him mesmerized.
Graciously, this is what Plastic Beach does, encompassing the best aspects of pop music while relegating the clichés and the rampant, soulless commercialism to other, lesser artists. Gorillaz has seemingly always understood that pandering to the least common denominator of public opinion is not the right path of musicianship. Thankfully, they’ve also understood that one can avoid this while still crafting a piece of sheer pop brilliancy.
Glorious in its grin-inducing atmosphere and somewhat silly thematic ideas, Plastic Beach will surely be one of the best releases of 2010. With some cooperation from the listener, Gorillaz proves again how good pop can really be.