With Blur placed on Damon Albarn’s back-burner, it seems as though Gorillaz will be his main creative outlet for the time being. The cartoon group’s first two albums (2001’s self-titled debut and 2005’s follow up Demon Days) were dizzying genre mash-ups that went well beyond Albarn’s Brit-pop comfort zone, into hip-hop, electronica, reggae and just about anywhere else he and his collaborators felt like going. It worked too, delivering songs and albums loved by critics and consumers. On the surface Plastic Beach appears to be cut from the same cloth, with seemingly incongruous genres and familiar guest artists. However, there’s some major structural changes that make an audible difference.
First, Damon Albarn takes over the producer’s role. Dan The Automator gave the debut album some East Coast hip-hop boom bap, and Dangermouse added an electro-psychedelic sheen to Demon Days; but Albarn, left to his own devices, favors less likable dub-step, Asian classical and early-1980s dance sounds. Next up are the guest vocalists. Where Gorillaz once got gold from Del The Funky Homosapien, De La Soul, Shaun Ryder and Miho Hatori; here they get half-hearted contributions from Snoop Dogg (has he written a good rhyme in the last fifteen years?), Mark E. Smith, Lou Reed and Mos Def, all of whom sound lost on their tracks. Nobody takes a bigger hit on Plastic Beach than British rap though, which gets set back at least another 5 years by Bashy and Kano’s verses on “White Flag” as well as Albarn’s own pathetic attempt at rapping on “Rhinestone Eyes”. Even the legendary De La Soul, who contributed solid raps on the previous Gorillaz mega-hit “Feel Good Inc.”, don’t sound half as tight (or coherent even) on “Superfast Jellyfish”, although the song is somewhat saved by Gruff Rhys’ chorus. As the album trudges onward you keep waiting for someone to take the helm and right the ship, but it never happens, as one underwhelming track follows another. A tremendous disappointment, from people who should really know better.