It's been 12 years since Blur songster and Britpop poster boy Damon Albarn first sat down with comic book artist Jamie Hewlett to draft their response to the decaying state of the music industry, and yet there's never been a time where the message of their avant-garde virtual band was quite so pertinent. These days our stars are force-fed to us by Simon Cowell and reality television, our chart-topping singles merely cover versions of songs that were cutting edge decades ago, and the entire concept of "pop music" is relegated to fodder for our celebrity voyeurism: penned by the talented, performed by the beautiful. This could be why the illusory members of Gorillaz have emigrated to this plastic beach, a far-flung island formed entirely of consumer waste and detritus, which Albarn has gathered and tailored to form what could well be his magnum opus.
Ironically, after a sweeping orchestral introduction, we're welcomed to Plastic Beach by Snoop Dogg, the G-funk crooner who swapped his hip-hop credibility for a banal MTV reality show to cement his celebrity status. But despite hamfisted references to Planet of the Apes and "drinking lemonade in the shade getting blazed," it isn't without its charms. Albarn fashions a beat of ill-omened synthesizers and sonorous bass glides upon which the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble impose their platoon of trumpets and trombones. The horns make way for elaborate string arrangements and jubilant flute work on the serene preamble to "White Flag," paving the way for U.K. rappers Kano and Bashy to wax lyrical on war, crime, and religion atop spells of electronic grime. This mélange of white-collar instruments and blue-collar beats in the album's early stages yields exceptional results, foreshadowing the unpredictable nature of the record and emphatically justifying Albarn's exodus from his "Country House" to this Plastic Beach.
The scene has been set, then, allowing the album to swagger through its three most radio-friendly ditties. First, "Rhinestone Eyes" sees 2D (Gorillaz's titular frontman, whom Albarn voices personally) take center stage for the first time, softly sighing his lo-fi vocal track over dense layers of synthesizers. Lead single "Stylo" plays even better in context, a dark funk number in which Bobby Womack steals the show with his rapturous howling. Mos Def bookends the track with duplicate verses, his languid flow looking to offset his astonishingly enraged colleague. Hip-hop heavyweights De La Soul then alternate microphone duties with Gruff Rhys on "Superfast Jellyfish," an upbeat jaunt tailor-made for release as a summer single. After a prologue sampled from an '80s advert for Swanson TV dinners, steel drums and cacophonous horns front a medley of wacky samples for this psychedelic deconstruction of the human appetite and fast food chains. De La Soul's emcees bounce off one another brilliantly in three fluent stanzas, while the Super Furry Animals's frontman brings his everyman Welsh twang to an inescapably beguiling refrain.
"Empire Ants" begins to explore Gorillaz's softer side, with 2D delicately crooning over a minimalist piano melody before Swedish electronic outfit Little Dragon is ushered in with a torrent of booming synths. "On Melancholy Hill," "Broken," and "To Binge" are similar bouts of off-kilter balladry, powered only by 2D's vocals and understated beats. Charming as they may be, it's clear Plastic Beach peaks when Albarn and his band of plucky contributors revel in their boundary-pushing dynamism, and there are so many instances in which they do just that: Mark E. Smith rants like the village drunk amid a barrage of sirens and delectably trashy electronic clamor on "Glitter Freeze," while Lou Reed plays the deadpan Grandfather passing on his cynical wisdom over the sprightly ivory of "Some Kind of Nature." It's doubly impressive that, upon finding these icons of old washed up on the shore of Gorillaz's wasteland hideaway and taking them so far out of their comfort zones, they manage to conform to Albarn's madcap design with such conviction.
Mos Def completes his two-track vignette with "Sweepstakes," a stupefying exercise in suspense where twitchy electronics swell into a full-blown big-band arrangement courtesy of the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble. The horns lay dormant for some three minutes, but the smooth-talking Brooklyn emcee keeps things engaging with his sharp wordplay and silky delivery while we hang on for the aforementioned brass storm. In an album full of surprises, this big-band eruption is arguably the most rewarding of all.
To handpick highlights from Plastic Beach should be considered lofty praise indeed; this is an album where the mind-boggling and the mind-blowing are wall to wall. Its brilliance adopts many guises throughout its 16 tracks, taking the form of unruffled cool one minute and raucous thumpers the next, all somehow woven together seamlessly to fit this outlandish adventure. Though it's only to be considered "pop" in the most obscure sense, and it goes to show Albarn has a pretty warped concept of the term, Plastic Beach provides the almighty shakeup that pop music has needed for some time.