Review | Gorillaz return with the highs and lows of Humanz

Gorillaz

Humanz

[Warner Bros.]

For Gorillaz, a group long-obsessed with combing through society’s issues and fears, it couldn’t seem like a better time to make a return. Modern culture is at a feverishly-bleak, anxious high, with social media only exacerbating the sense of constant and endless reasons to feel miserable. Humanz should be a near-perfect outing for the band, but instead, it’s as conflicted as the subject matter, disappointing as often as it delivers.

Gorillaz have always been looking at the world around them, commenting on the human condition with enough compassion to feel valid and hesitantly hopeful rather than condemning. While still remaining sympathetic, they felt unflinching – look at the list of heavy subjects Demon Days dissects or the doomsday scenario that Plastic Beach obsesses itself with and you’ll find thorough, uncompromising searches into those dark spaces. Humanz instead perpetuates it, often-grating, all the while over-compensating with sudden and cheap flashes of floodlights, the electricity overflowing, the bulbs ready to burst at any moment. By the time the final song of the standard edition hits, the optimism seems over-the-top and meaningless, just as vapid as the darkness that preceded it.

It starts without a warm up – a quick intro ends as soon as it begins before “Ascension” takes over, a smack to the face of energy that isn’t as compelling as it wants to be, but instead manic and discomforting. “Strobelite,” however, is a beautiful, soulful romp, one of the stand-outs of the record. The vocals are smooth and velvety, and the music is gorgeous, engaging and sprawling, riding the feeling out to the end, taking its time to envelop you in its mood.

“Saturnz Barz” is fantastic, Popcaan’s voice wonderful as the bracing, heavy bass buzzes throughout. It’s the first place that Albarn’s vocals get a proper time to shine, and they’re always a highlight of the project – he often sounds like a depressed, baritone-voiced angel, and it’s on full-display here. One of the best lines of the album comes from him early on, singing, “With the holograms beside me, I’ll dance alone tonight; in a mirrored world, are you beside me all my life?” It’s a perfect description of where Humanz is most interesting – when it’s focused on the loneliness, the vapid and hollow sense of reality that our world has taken on, the people beside you seeming fake, the moments synthetic, a longing for a world that isn’t ours, and won’t be.

But the manic insanity kicks back in, “Momentz” being a thumping, empty-feeling exercise in materialism. It’s a weaker track, and feels redundant – plenty of songs communicate the same points it’s making on the album; is there really a need to so many repeating it? “Submission” is wholly-forgettable save for Kelela’s vocals, and “Charger” is the most frantic, panic-attack-inducing song of the entire lot, but it’s an instance where that approach truly works. The guitar is menacing, and Albarn’s vocals are on-edge, pricking like pins rather than inspiring the well of empathy he so often finds inside of his audience.

That empathy comes back afterward, though, and “Andromeda” is one of the highlights here – it was enchanting when released before the rest of the album, and it still is in context, if not moreso – what in isolation is a pretty, romantic flourish becomes a single ray of sincerity and honest affection in a sea of disingenuousness, excess and overflow. It’s steady, moving and marvelous, and gives way to the purest expression of sadness throughout, with “Busted and Blue” following it up.

On an album that’s over-crowded with features trying to catch your attention, “Busted and Blue” is a rare instance where Albarn’s vocals are given sole focus, the song itself an inky, cosmic pool of remorse and loneliness. The keys feel like they’ve been torn from a lullaby and twisted into something far sadder, bleak as moonlight bathes the room. It’s proof of a heart beating at the center of this record, one that, at times, is so convincing in its illustrations of vapid, hollow excess and anxious mania that it can be hard to remember there’s a point to it all.

Humanz is often far too one-note to leave a strong impression, and some of these songs one after the other after begin to blur – but songs like “Andromeda” and “Busted and Blue” help break that up, even if only for a minute, and they often save the project in a number of ways. The moments of quieter vulnerability and sincerity provide some much-needed heart to cling to.

By the time the indulgent, on-the-nose and delightfully debauched “Sex Murder Party” starts, it’s easier to appreciate what they’re trying for, even if it doesn’t always pay off, a project that pushes the nihilism and optimism they’ve always flirted with to their most extreme yet, both folding in on one another. The emptiness consumes all, eating away at our smiles and tears alike, and it’s of our own making, the album’s title a perfect one. The group has never been this willing to go after our worse selves, the entire album a criticism of who we are and how it’s created where we’re at, but that’s part of what makes it stagger – they show a desire to make up for it, almost, and those attempts feel insincere and obligatory.

Demon Days knew the problems we were all dealing with, but it didn’t act like it could sell us the remedy to them. Plastic Beach entrenches itself in the rising tides of our oceans and the factory-influenced destruction of our ecosystems, but it doesn’t pretend like its songs can reverse our carbon emissions alone. Neither record seems truly hopeless, but the hope present is tempered, measured and realistic. Those flashlight beams in the darkness are dim, but they’re real. Here, Gorillaz seem eager to ignite an enormous fire, obliterating the darkness, but it comes off as desperate, as overcharged as the ills of our world that they present to us. There’s a desperate edge to the joy here, like it’s a last-ditch effort, a final, tight-eyed commitment of a prayer to improvement, but it’s one that doesn’t seem real.

The mood in the air in 2017 isn’t fresh, it’s apocalyptic, and even if we do have that potential to fix it all, how is simply feeling that way going to make it happen? Loud and flowery optimism and happiness couldn’t seem less authentic than now, and Humanz is fully-committed to being that way, in turn showing all of its hollowness. If past efforts have largely explored the faults of our faults, Humanz finds the faults in our positives. What good’s a prayer when you’ve got a gun to your head?

Hallelujah Money” is, surprisingly, a huge standout. When it was released on its own earlier in the year, it sounded wonky, off-stance and faltering, in general seen as a disappointment, but as a penultimate summary of Humanz’ obsessions and observations, it’s a masterpiece. Benjamin Clementine is haunting, and soulfully so. The music’s reminiscent of hospital machines beneath Albarn’s vocals, faint and questioning. The questions being asked are as honest, authentic and delicately terrified as any Demon Days had to ask. It’s a disturbing, discomforting and all-around powerful track, one that’s the ultimate example of what Humanz has to say. It’s the purest moment that achieves the same highs as Demon Days – it’s just a shame it’s such an isolated incident here.

To be followed by “We Got the Power” feels like a joke. The song seems cheap, on the surface coming off as an emptily stirring, false attempt at rousing the senses, telling us how powerful we are as a species. But at the end of every line, there seems to be something unspoken – “we’ve got the power to do that,” Albarn proclaims – but we don’t. This drop of sadness makes the song more valid than it otherwise would be, a knowing admittance of our potential after an album’s worth of reminders of how little we’ve lived up to it. As good of a concept as it is, though, it’s not a particularly strong song – it’s one of the weakest of the lot, repetitive and static, and it feels wrong as a closer. Though some remember Plastic Beach less fondly than others, the final stretch of tracks on it are cathartic, climactic and wonderful, a conclusion that ties up all of the album’s concerns and feelings. Humanz teases such an ending with “Hallelujah Money,” but it’s pulled away, ending on a lesser note.

The bonus tracks found on the Deluxe version are as good as anything else here, and often better – it’s the version of the album to get, and it’s one strong downside to this release – songs like “The Apprentice,” “Halfway to the Halfway House” and “Ticker Tape” are essential blasts of spirit, beauty and soul that the core tracks often either eschew or subvert. Those qualities are hallmarks of past Gorillaz records, but Humanz forget them frequently, and these bonuses, which on their own are incredible, inspire a sense of frustration – knowing that material like this was left off of the core record is maddening, a confusing decision that has no clear justification.

It’s understandable that “Out of Body” is a bonus, and “Circle of Friends” is too repetitive and lacking in an ending, but the other three are some of the best material from this time period that we’ve heard, and to not be regarded as part of the “main” experience is a shame – if they were sequenced into the standard tracklist, with some of the weaker material dropped, Humanz would leave a far deeper impression than it currently does. “The Apprentice” and “Halfway to the Halfway Home” offer some of the best, groove-oriented soulful sounds in the tracklist, and for them to be labelled as nonessential is baffling.

I can’t help but feel that Humanz leaves something out, as good as a lot of it is. There are no songs like “Rhinestone Eyes,” “Dirty Harry,” “Kids With Guns” or “On Melancholy Hill” – it’s hard to imagine finding myself humming most of these. The album collects a lot of anxieties, but it doesn’t provide a whole lot of catharsis for them. “Halfway to the Halfway Home” would offer that had it been properly sequenced in, but it isn’t, so it doesn’t. It’s not a Demon Days (though what is?), and it’s not even a Plastic Beach – but it’s still got a lot going for it. It’ll certainly be better remembered than The Fall, but on every listen, I find myself wanting to love Humanz more than I actually do.

Whatever bliss can be found on Humanz is, most of the time, as unsustainable as the negativity it portrays. More than ever, a moderate, level-headed sense of measured optimism feels vital –but instead the warmth here doesn’t do the trick. The truest moments come in the most misery-inducing segments, and maybe that’s the point – the desires we have for progress seem like fantasy, trapped on top of a giant landfill that’s spinning alone in the universe, surrounded by all of the other Humanz. In a society where our fears are racing to the finish line faster than they’ve ever felt, why should our dreams be any less breakneck and impossible to last?

While those ideas are nice artistically, the execution gets muddied along the way, and an album that could have been one of the strongest releases of the year instead ends up being a decent one. If this album really has something to say that’s unique or relevant, it isn’t as clear and concise as it could be. Gorillaz has always been an experimental project with a large net to cast for collaborations, but the overreliance on features and the frequently party-friendly vibe causes a loss of recognizable identity at times. The playfulness and diversity in sound of other albums is lost frequently here to an over-commitment to intensity, but the moments that they arrive are as good as they’ve ever been, and the high points are some of the group’s most affecting to date.

This could have been a modern day Demon Days, but instead it settles for being far less. To come out around releases like Kendrick Lamar’s masterful DAMN. is unfortunate, because while it’s not bad, there’s so much more immediately-satisfying and conceptually-flawless music to listen to. Gorillaz aren’t the only band offering thoughtful looks at the world around us right now, and they’re not doing the best job of it – Humanz is regularly inconsistent, with its best moments as great as the worst moments are bad. Overall, Humanz is a messy record, but one that still holds value, even if it disappoints at times. Maybe it’s a grower – much of their discography has taken time to settle in for audiences before – but as it stands, Humanz is simply an above-average album from an often-extraordinary band.

SEVEN POINT FIVE OUT OF TEN

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