Blur are my Beatles. Graham is a spot on 90’s George. Damon is John. Damon is also Paul and Ringo. He’s also Phil Spector and Yoko. Here’s the thing though, Damon has done something almost none of the classic rock stars did: have a successful band and then another that surpassed the first. Paul McCartney never did it, neither did Robert Plant, or Prince, or Wayne Coyne or Neil Young or Bob Dylan. Damon Albarn is a culture sculptor in two consecutive decades that have been as different as any. Disagree? Listen to “Song 2” and then immediately “Clint Eastwood”. Those songs came out 4 years apart.
Humanz, Damon’s fourth record as Gorillaz, is not his best, but it didn’t need to be. It’s a comeback record that’s less immediate and sugary than Plastic Beach, less iconic than the self-titled or Demon Days. It is a party record that sounds like it was made at a party rather than for one. It’s closer to the concept of the “playlist” album than Drake’s attempt.
48 minutes of consistent 140 bpm march in the same direction. There aren’t really any crazy standouts on the first few listens — no “Superfast Jellyfish” or “DARE”. That isn’t to say there aren’t high points — “Saturnz Barnz” is meticulous in its groove with Popcaan tossing out hooks to spare. “Momentz” brings back Damon’s favorite collaborators De La Soul who continue their now three record streak of appearing on the best song here. With thirty seconds left on the track, most artists would be content to jam out an additional chorus or two, but Damon sets in motion a carousel of echoing synth pokes like he searched his iPad and grabbed a loop out of a folder of thousands.
Elsewhere, Mavis Staples once again makes us question if she is, in fact, an angel and Danny Brown raps like he is reading the graffiti off the bathroom wall at a Chili’s. His delivery takes cues from Andre 3000’s verse on the rarely mentioned but classic single from Damon — “Doyathing” — even down to the specific phrasing of several lines. Benjamin Clementine’s “Hallelujah Money” makes much more sense here than it did as a first taste. It was a confusing song to release alone — Damon raising the possibility that this was somehow going to be a mix of his Mali Music record from 2002 and some Rocket Juice and The Moon b-side. It fits in the last stretch of the record like the “fresh of breath air” promised 35 minutes before. The record loses a bit of steam in its third act, though, “Sex Murder Party” is neither as risqué as its title nor as compelling.
Even with multiple guests per track, Damon’s moments are still Humanz’s peak. The two song stretch “Andromeda” and “Busted and Blue” is the best on the record. The latter being a more melancholy “On Melancholy Hill” the former a solo version of his Gorillaz formula. “Andromeda” is the kind of song that makes you wonder what a solo Gorillaz record would be like until you remember you got it quite a few Christmases ago and it wasn’t what you hoped for.
Humanz occupies a unique spot in the Gorillaz canon. It oozes with the below-the-surface grandeur that usually quantifies the record before the classic record in a band’s discography. Like Clarity by Jimmy Eat World or Isn’t Anything by My Bloody Valentine, it has a smaller measure of the iconic sound than its predecessor, making it feel more like it should be the record before the classic that fans cite to prove their long-term fandom. Except, in this case, it came after.
Even the production feels preceding to their earlier work. Electronica keeps shifting towards bombastic and streamlined. Hearing real drum machines pulsing through the tracks gives more immediacy and genuineness than anything on top 40. The reverby bass drums that come through Damon’s iPad and various toys make the cartoons jamming in a garage a real potential mind vision.
A lot has been made in the reviews published before this one on the Trump angle in this record — I don’t hear it. Probably just a narrative Damon used to coax performance out of people and then he liked the story just a bit too much to not mention it in interviews. The untapped story of the lyrics is Damon’s ability to create emotion with commonplace themes and phrases. “Take it in your heart now lover” is delivered with a pinch of satire, the classic British way, and it just sticks in that “It’s over, you don’t need to tell me” emotional, Damon way. Even reading the title “Busted and Blue” is so bulls-eye Damon you can almost hear the melody before he sings the coda.
At Bonnaroo 2014, I was in the second or third row of the crowd at a rare Damon Albarn solo, stateside performance. He brought out De La Soul and a few guests, people went nuts for the Gorillaz material, much less so for the Good the Bad and the Queen song and the Think Tank content. For some reason, his less hip hop acts never quite caught on in America. I was blowing him kisses from the crowd as he powered through a career spanning set like he does with no other moniker. Blur never caught on in America, his other bands never had a chance. Maybe for a time, Damon thought his music would never really make the Atlantic jump, but with Gorillaz, it has done so and much more. B