Thoughts On… Gorillaz’s ‘Humanz’

The world has been waiting an awfully long time for a new full-length album from Gorillaz – we haven’t had one since 2010’s ‘The Fall’ and the 7 years since have been mostly spent wondering when the next one will arrive. It’s finally here. But does ‘Humanz’ live up to the incredible levels of hype, as well as the ridiculously high bar set by the band’s previous efforts?

The album opens incredibly strongly with ‘Ascension’ and along with the following track ‘Strobelite’ we get a picture of the mood of the album that follows – this is very much a party album and it embraces recent moves in hip-hop and the revival of funk that has been so prevalent in the last couple of years. While these moves are refreshing at first, the constant reliance on them proves to be the downfall of the album later on.

‘Saturnz Barz’ has a fantastic, catchy hook and a great beat, but Popcaan feels somewhat out of place – he doesn’t quite gel with everything else going on. 2D’s (Damon Albarn’s) fantastic segment in the second half really brings the track back up though, and the album hasn’t particularly waivered up to this point. ‘Momentz’ continues the trend of great tracks with a classic De La Soul feature and while this isn’t quite ‘Feel Good Inc.’ there is something amazingly infectious about ‘Momentz’ and it’s a real highlight of the album.

The weaknesses of this album start to show, however, at ‘Submission’. There simply isn’t anything here to let us know this is a Gorillaz song. The lack of that classic cartoony feeling could be forgiven on ‘Strobelite’, but ‘Submission’ just feels like a less funky version of the same track. Danny Brown’s feature is the closest we get here to feeling like a Gorillaz; the sudden burst of rap echoes ‘Dirty Harry’.

‘Charger’ brings the quality back up but 2D’s vocals feel very unfinished and Grace Jones seems underutilised. This proves to be a real problem on the second half of the album – there’s just a feeling that this album is half finished. Before we get to that though we have the excellent ‘Andromeda’ – it has the modern sound of the rest of the album but with that Gorillaz flare. Say what you will about Gorillaz having always been a collaborative project, this album is sorely lacking the voice of Damon Albarn’s ‘2D’ where it is needed most and the vocals that are there, from Damon or otherwise, just don’t have the big, catchy hooks we’re used to finding on Gorillaz tracks. ‘Andromeda’ is everything Humanz should have been.

‘Busted and Blue’ is a beautiful track but one can’t help the feeling it should have been on Damon Albarn’s ‘Everyday Robots’ rather than here. Again, that cartoony Gorillaz flare just isn’t there. Putting the only two songs with heavy-2D vocals next to each other on the album is a strange choice as well. And after this, for me, the album really falls to pieces. The transition to ‘Carnival’ is incredibly jarring and the song itself feels completely undercooked and nothing about the arrangement works at all. There is no reason for this track to be here.

‘Let Me Out’ was praised before ‘Humanz’ came out, but for me it represents everything that is wrong with the album. The first verse contains bleeped references to Donald Trump and Barack Obama, and while ‘Ascension’ also had this, it wasn’t anywhere near as noticeable. Gorillaz have always dealt with real-world issues, yes, but there’s always been a certain level of separation from real life which keeps the albums sounding timeless. ‘Humanz’, due to tracks like this, is not only not timeless, but it’s already starting to sound dated a mere two months after its release. The song itself again feels very unfinished – while Pusha T’s verses are very good (politics references aside), 2D’s hook feels like a placeholder for something else to be added and Mavis Staples’ vocals feel like they’ve been cut about in the studio and pushed to the back of the mix, almost like they were recorded for a different song and hastily added to this one. The constituent parts of a good Gorillaz song are there, but nothing quite adds up.

‘Sex Murder Party’ is in no way memorable, and while Damon Albarn’s vocals come close to saving the song, it just feels so bare bones. There’s nothing here. There’s no focus. Luckily this streak of sub-par efforts is ended with ‘She’s My Collar’ and it’s again an example of what ‘Humanz’ should have been. Incredible beat, great use of a featuring artist, and some understated but more polished sounding vocals from 2D. Stunning production going on here that is let down massively by the tracks preceding it.

We now come in to the closing stretch of the album – ‘Hallelujah Money’ is a great example of a political Gorillaz song done right. There’s no explicit mentions here, but there’s enough to let you know exactly what or who the song is talking about without making it too obviously dateable. Benjamin Clementine is used fantastically and the synths feel like something straight out of ‘Plastic Beach’, which is almost a shame because it feels a bit out of place after the rest of the album. We close on ‘We Got The Power’ which boasts a great hook and a superb lineup of guest artists (Jehnny Beth, Noel Gallagher, Jean-Michel Jarre) but there’s not quite enough substance to keep it going longer than its 2 minute track length.

Overall, ‘Humanz’ feels bloated and unfinished. It starts out strong and all the ideas are there, but they don’t come together into a cohesive Gorillaz package. If this album had been trimmed and consolidated, it could have been fantastic – the whole point of Gorillaz is their diverse sound and the way it evolves, but on this particular step in their career the band seem to have lost something that makes Gorillaz feel like Gorillaz. Attempts are there to bring back the cartoony aesthetic we all know and love, particularly with the ‘Interlude’ tracks through the album, but those attempts often feel forced. When ‘Humanz’ shines it is very good indeed but there is very little here that comes close to living up to the absurdly good quality of the band’s first three albums.

5/10

Before closing this review completely, I think it’s worth also looking at the bonus tracks provided with the album because they seem to have become a part of the album itself, and some of them are of distinctly higher quality. Firstly we have ‘The Apprentice’ which seems to nail the balance that ‘Humanz’ lacked between featuring artists and the band itself. There’s a lot going on on this track but there always has been a lot going on with Gorillaz and that’s part of the beauty of the band. ‘The Apprentice’ feels like a fully polished Gorillaz track and it absolutely should have been on the album.

‘Halfway To The Halfway House’ is a bizarre track and I have no idea what they were trying to go for with the constantly ascending atonal synthesisers, but what lies underneath could have been very good indeed. ‘Out Of Body’ is perhaps the most cartoony thing provided with ‘Humanz’ – the quirky, cute verses from Kilo Kish have that animated aesthetic that the main album was lacking, and while this isn’t the best thing the band have released it is again far better than a lot of the album when it comes to feeling like a Gorillaz song.

‘Ticker Tape’ features vocals from the legendary Carly Simon and while it’s very ‘Plastic Beach’, much like ‘Hallelujah Money’, if the two had been put on the album together perhaps ‘Hallelujah Money’ wouldn’t have sounded quite so out of place. This is a classic slow Gorillaz song akin to ‘To Binge’ and for me is a highlight of the album despite not appearing ‘on’ it. Carly Simon’s vocals are sublime.

‘Circle of Friendz’ feels again like an unfinished idea but if it had been incorporated into a full-length song it might have been something special. Overall, these bonus tracks are of a range of qualities but if some of them had replaced the weaker numbers on ‘Humanz’ (‘Submission’, ‘Carnival’, ‘Sex Murder Party’) the overall quality of the album would have been considerably higher.

Read my retrospective on Gorillaz’s ‘Demon Days’ here.

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