With Murdoc in jail and with a surprising absence of Noodle and Russel, the eternally cool 2-D is left to deliver the large majority of the new Gorillaz album. But has the morose formula of Blur frontman Damon Albarn, coupled with this loss of performance dynamics, produced a great album?
With the considerable promotion of the relatively good single “Humility” and the mediocre reception of 2017’s Humanz, hype for the new Gorillaz release has been at a standard level. The Now Now is a moodier effort from the increasingly glum corner of Albarn (see: The Magic Whip (2015), Everyday Robots (2014)), with a few great songs, but is hindered by uninspiring tracks and a tiring vocal timbre. While it improves on the bloated and feature heavy Humanz, only half of its songs are noteworthy or of significant impact. The record never reaches the grandeur and attraction of their 2005 breakout album Demon Days or their inventive 2010 release Plastic Beach. The unnecessary ‘z’ gimmick continues on in song titles (from Humanz), yet this release is certainly a 180 on its predecessor in the sense of only having three featured guest artists across its short 11 tracks. The Now Now sports a couple of great cuts and is certainly an album that grows with multiple listens, but, sadly, the album leaves listeners wanting to listen to other defining releases and tracks, as these are simply more innovative and exciting.
“Humility” is a mellow track with a cheerful atmosphere, featuring guitar virtuoso George Benson’s quick, tasteful licks and runs. The track is overflowing with pop-like qualities, continuing on various tones established within Albarn’s iPad-recorded album The Fall (2010) – with staccato synth hits and an understated drum beat driving the track. This cut introduces the harsh and cutting filters used on the vocals of Albarn, nothing new in the history of 2-D’s performances, but on The Now Now vocals are mixed louder, with the recurring grain becoming slightly off-putting. Heavy delay on these vocals provides transition between verse and chorus, which is a nice touch, and overall the song is pretty decent.
“Tranz” opens with a crushing bass line, follows a four-on-the-floor drum groove and has a dense, layered chorus, which forms an apocalyptic dance-pop banger. Chorus melodies and synth riffs are certainly more pop-oriented and simple than expected – a recurring feature of The Now Now, not proving to be a negative but still taking away from the overall impact of the record. Some ambient percussion and great ascending transitions also spice the track up, placing it in the upper half of songs on the album. The following “Hollywood” intertwines the soft yet provocative verses of longtime collaborator Snoop Dogg, with an old school house beat. The weaker hook is the detriment of this cut, a sombre cry of the allure yet destruction of Hollywood (“She’s a wonderful thing… Hollywood is over”) that falls short in its delivery and relation with the rest of the track. Snoop’s lyrics, while alluring and witty as always, feel distant from the vibe of the chorus, almost dismantling the track at a content and meaning level. Chicago born Jamie Principle has more expressive and direct verse, which provides a nice contrast on the track.
In the close of a decade brimming with worrying issues and sensationalism, equal to the age of any previous Gorillaz album, it seems it would be easy for Damon’s politics to take far greater prominence. While it’s almost a relief that they don’t, those that do seem heavy-handed or rather distant, such as on “Hollywood” or “One Percent”. It’s a far cry from songs such as “Fire Coming Out Of The Monkey’s Head” or “Plastic Beach” – songs which tackle issues in a fun but musically adventurous way.
“Kansas” (thankfully not presented as “Kanzaz”) is a solid track – one that is more ‘classic Gorillaz’, with its tell-tale sloppy drums. The slightly offset upbeat is reminiscent of their 2001 self-titled debut, and 2-D’s comforting croaks over a standard four chord progression certainly compound this. Lush strings in the chorus are a nicer touch, but the song, as with most on The Now Now, falls into a very basic structure. Other cuts such as “Magic City”, “Lake Zurich” and “One Percent” also experience this pitfall. The darker “Sorcererz” is an incredibly dense cut, overwhelming (in a good way) with upwards of five synthesised stems alone. It combines dissonant intervals and a solid drum groove with meticulously placed open hi-hats, offsetting the unnecessary fade out and reused synth patches.
A turn of acoustic beauty, “Idaho” is a welcome oasis of brilliant chord progressions, memorable lyrics and a 70s rock chorus. Opening with well-paced finger picking and some panned scratching, yet contrasting this with an almost Pink Floyd midsection, the track is fantastic in its ability to distinguish its sections and itself against other cuts. This track is home to a great vocal performance which is simple but expressive, as well as more professional in its lack of harsh filtering. This clean vocal tone reflects a legitimate progression in voice and character of 2-D. It’s much more effective than re-hashing the overused vocal filter.
“Fire Flies” bridges a tight 6/8 sway with a recurring 4/4 shift, reinvigorating a sense of experimentation and excitement in the listing. Had other tracks followed a similar path, the entire album could have been fresher and more interesting. The finale, “Souk Eye”, falls into a similar vein as “Idaho” – another solid track, memorable due to its incorporation of finger style acoustic and immense bass sound. 7th chords and short instrumental breaks make for a more dynamic and interesting cut, again showcasing what could have been.
Gorillaz are, of course, a band based deeply in the story of artist Jamie Hewlett, and stories have to progress. It is unreasonable to expect the sound and mood of the 21st century’s virtual band to stay as it has on previous records, as this is simply to ignore half of the band’s charm and ubiquity, the incredible visuals and lore of Hewlett. Humanz represented a radical shift in visual style and a fresh concept (that of a Trumpian dystopia), but failed to resound due to its mediocre songwriting and performance. The Now Now reverts back to more classic imagery. While the absence of key members Noodle and Murdoc does leave the record somewhat tiring, its best tracks give a promising insight into the future of the project. The animated wonders will always hold a soft spot in our hearts, but The Now Now doesn’t quite contend with the Gorillaz we all know and love.
With thanks to Ava Schmutter