It’s easy for people to still get caught up in the novelty of Gorillaz calling four fictional, animated characters a ‘band,” and then going so far as to have them perform on a projector for their ‘concerts,” can have that kind of effect. But in preparation of listening to ‘Plastic Beach,” the first Gorillaz album in five years, I was reminded of how much I missed this band.

Headed by Blur frontman Damon Albarn, the only official member of the group, the cartoon faade liberates the band (project, really) to experiment with a vast number of collaborators, genres and eccentricities on the same album. No one short of Gnarls Barkley has made pop albums are adventurous and boldly bizarre as the first two Gorillaz records, so ‘Plastic Beach” is something to be very excited about.

Well, at least in theory it was. ‘Plastic Beach” is the least interesting Gorillaz album yet, which is and isn’t much of a valid complaint. Each Gorillaz album is a expansive mess that has something for everyone, and they’re one-of-a-kind. The problem with ‘Plastic Beach,” though, is something this project would inevitably encounter: Because Gorillaz overtly tries to be an ‘anything goes” project, it can’t really evolve, it can only try to outdo its own eclecticism.

And that’s not an easy task. 2005’s ‘Demon Days” threw techno, dubstep, hip-hop, trip-hop, space rock, mope rock, gospel, spoken word, avant-garde and maybe one or two other genres I can’t think of together on the same album so really, where else could Gorillaz go from there?

Considering what this project has already accomplished, ‘Plastic Beach” feels like an underwhemling grab-bag.

Nonetheless, reveling in the capricious oddities of this album can be great fun, if only because so few albums wildly toss around so many ideas. Just check out the first four tracks alone: There’s an orchestral introduction, then a jarring and spaced-out Snoop Dogg track, then a much more invigorated hip-hop song featuring British rappers Brashy and Kano, and then Albarn finally shows up for trippy ‘Rhinestone Eyes.”

Of these four tracks, only the Brashy and Kano song ‘White Flag” is more than merely amusing. But in its earliest stages, ‘Plastic Beach” prepares you to not get too comfortable in any one song’s style in that sense, the album gets off to a great start.

The rest of the album works hard to retain that free-for-all feeling, and it’s a hit-and-miss affair all the way through. There’s a fine line between Gorillaz goofing around or just goofing off, so for every great song, there’s another one that feels like an unimpassioned experiment.

‘Broken” and ‘Glitter Freeze” are aimless techno, ‘Plastic Beach” somehow manages to put two former Clash members to no good use and the first single ‘Stylo” is a cyclic and plodding song that sounds even more dull against ‘Clint Eastwood” or ‘Feel Good, Inc.”

But when things actually come together on one of these songs, the results are astounding. ‘Superfast Jellyfish” is an absurd, satirical take on commercial jingles that represents Gorillaz’s erratic whimsy at its finest; Mos Def takes control on ‘Sweepstakes,” a funk song that keeps upping its own insanity; ‘On Melancholy Hill” and ‘Cloud of Unknowing,” sung by Albarn and Bobby Womack respectively, are the saddest, prettiest Gorillaz song yet.

With an orchestra, a brass ensemble and twelve celebrity guests popping up throughout these sixteen songs, Albarn hardly even feels like the ringleader of Gorillaz it would do him good to use more discretion on which weird ideas and famous names get stuffed onto the same disc. But consistency has never really been the point of Gorillaz, and I doubt cohesion ever was either. ‘Plastic Beach” is no more spotty than ‘Gorillaz” or ‘Demon Days,” it’s just shorter on surprises. Still, ‘Plastic Beach” throws plenty of interesting stuff around, and everyone is bound to have different favorites, which is part of the fun anyway. The whole thing could have been stronger, but albums with this much sprawled creativity aren’t common, so it’s good to have Gorillaz back.

Silverstein is a member of the class of 2013.



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