When Gorillaz announced Humanz, their first album in seven years, it was reasonable to wonder if reactivating the virtual-band conceit served much purpose at this juncture. After all, Damon Albarn has spent the last few years putting his real face forward and eschewing his virtual one—first with his very personal solo album Everyday Robots and then with Blur’s The Magic Whip. This would surely only make Gorillaz co-founder Jamie Hewlett’s cartoon world feel less immersive and convincing. Then there’s the fact that the project began as an MTV spoof with a bent toward capitalist critique, and in 2017, both pop music and politics are utterly beyond parody.
Ultimately, Albarn manages to find a distinguishing purpose for Gorillaz on Humanz by bringing together a dizzying array of guest stars; if nothing else, it’s probably going to go down as the only album in history to feature both Mavis Staples and Popcaan. While their status as a virtual band has always made it easy for Albarn and Hewlett to bring in guest voices, this album in particular plays more like an Albarn-curated playlist than the duo’s brainchild. This being the case, it’s surprisingly cohesive, both thematically and musically, offering a set of pumping club-ready grooves to dance to at the end of the world as we know it. Humanz falters not when its concept runs thin, but when Albarn and his cavalcade of co-conspirators begin to run out of the meaty hooks that have defined Gorillaz’s best work.
Albarn instructed each of his collaborators to imagine their reaction were Trump to win the election as they conceived the songs they were given to work with, so it’s surprising that Humanz’s first half or so is remarkably upbeat. Its first guest star, Vince Staples, seems most distressed about the prospect on opener “Ascension,” dropping rhymes about guns and lynching and breathlessly rapping: “The sky’s falling, baby/Drop that ass ’fore it crash.” But the track is such an adrenaline-pumping banger that it feels more like a party-starter than the soundtrack to the apocalypse.
There’s plenty of tension running through one of the album’s other highlights, “Charger,” which features Grace Jones audibly seething (“I am the ghost”) over an angrily buzzing processed guitar riff. Otherwise, most of the best tracks here stand out for how much fun they are: De La Soul offers buoyancy on the jovial “Momentz”; Peven Everett croons along to fashion-runway-friendly funk on “Strobelite”; and the closing “We Got the Power”—featuring Albarn’s old Britpop nemesis, Noel Gallagher, on backing vocals—is as melodically sugary as it is over-the-top optimistic lyrically (“We got the power to be loving each other/No matter what happens, we’ve got the power to do that”).
Albarn effectively weaves together his guests’ ostensibly disparate styles with spoken interludes narrated by actor Ben Mendelsohn, as well as his own lackadaisical vocal interjections (he only sings one song by himself: the swaying, dejected alt-pop “Busted and Blue”). While this glue continues to hold together Humanz’s back half, the party vibe and strong hooks don’t—save for “We Got the Power” and the soulful Staples and Pusha T-showcasing “Let Me Out”). Rather than continuing to try and dance away the pain, Albarn and company elect to wallow in it, resulting in dreary misfires like “Carnival” and “Sex Murder Party,” as well as Benjamin Clementine laying on the anti-nationalist rhetoric a bit too thick on “Hallelujah Money.” Which is depressing: If we can’t even count on a virtual band to deliver effective escapism from the horror show that is 2017 for a full 50 minutes, can we get it anywhere?