Why I don’t like Plastic Beach.
I was gonna have to write something like this eventually, yet I can tell that anyone who would read this to get the legitimate reasons I have for not enjoying Plastic Beach–Gorillaz’ new album–has already heard them in conversations we’ve had. Hey Dan. However, the people who don’t like me for not liking it wouldn’t read this anyway. So who am I writing this for? … Me. The record. My book. In any case, all of that is just to support this. You know those people who insist that you only don’t like something because you can’t understand it? How come I’m not allowed to understand what Damon Albarn and crew were doing with Plastic Beach and still not like it? Cos trust me, I get it. I–(epic pause, puts on sunglasses)–just don’t like what I get.
So here’s the deal. I watched the entire making-of DVD bundled with Plastic Beach and the number one PB fan I know said that after seeing that, his mind was blown about how much thought went into this album. Okay, so I saw it. And here are a few bullet points that came up often that were used as arguments for Plastic Beach as Good as Demon Days. 1) Damon Albarn saw that people were not listening so much to albums anymore as listening to playlists. And he wanted to make an album that sounded varied, like a playlist. Hence the disparate genres. 2) Damon Albarn saw that plastic was no longer something synthetic imposed on nature, but rather becoming a part of nature. I forget exactly what he saw, but this was the inspiration behind the album. So 3) Damon Albarn decides to write the entire album as a mixed-genre playlist style thing around the theme and world of Plastic Beach. We’re all together on this journey. I understand the effort that went into it as much as you do. This is why all that effort was a big fat waste.
Damon Albarn, when writing for Gorillaz at least, already writes playlist style concept albums. He also did that in Blur and for the album The Good, the Bad, & the Queen. It seems that he never realized that because he thought that he had to do that intentionally for Plastic Beach. He didn’t. He just had to be Damon Albarn and write about what inspired him. Ironically, in aiming for an album with a subtle theme of certain recurring topics, he missed both the fact that he’d already done that with the last Gorillaz album, Demon Days and limited the many ways his album could express the themes that were inspiring him. On Demon Days, the atmosphere of despair was enough to tie the songs together into a cohesive whole. There were recurring themes of loneliness, isolation, fruitless effort, lost love. This despite every song being a different genre of bootyshaker or ballad. And at the end, it culminates in a triumphant return to optimism. It is a playlist with a theme that does something with it.
But how did Damon approach theme on Plastic Beach? I admit, it’s more than most artists do. He and Jamie Hewlett, the other creative half behind Gorillaz, invented an entire fictional world that they had all of their collaborators write about. And for an artist who didn’t normally put that effort into their writing, maybe it would have worked. But instead, what you end up with is a set of recurring words and phrases and a lot of stuff that needs a manual to make any sense on its own. Plastic. Aluminum. Landfill. Coming up to the overload. Electric. Also the musical themes of electronic vs. organic–a musical dichotomy he’s spent his entire career exploring and exploiting for profit already. There are live strings against electro-funk on Demon Days already; why is it some big thematic invention here? It’s not subtle, especially not for Damon Albarn. It just feels like Gorillaz-by-numbers from two guys who’ve already abandoned what was the concept of the band at its inception.
I wanted to avoid talking about this as I probably stand divided from the rest of Gorillaz’ vast fanbase on this issue, but I hate what they did to the characters. And it doesn’t feel like what they did “with” the characters, like taking them into a new, darker and more desperate atmosphere for Demon Days and seeing how they’d handle it. Instead, Damon Albarn–well, it feels like he hijacked a band he wasn’t meant to be a part of and kicked all of them out. Plastic Beach doesn’t function as a Gorillaz album. The Gorillaz characters–2D, Murdoc, Noodle and Russel–have been given no place in the Plastic Beach mythology. Sure, Jamie and Damon were tired of accommodating this fake band they invented nearly ten years ago, I understand how that would limit your creativity a bit. But the last time you were tired of writing for them, didn’t you make another project entirely (Monkey: Journey to the West)? Is it that Monkey sold poorly that you decided that whatever you two did next had to be from a band with a dedicated fanbase? Okay, maybe that’s a bit cynical. It’s a lot cynical.
And it makes sense. Reading over interviews around the time of release, Damon Albarn said that Gorillaz won’t be Gorillaz anymore. It will go on into the future as a brand name for whatever Damon Albarn, Jamie Hewlett and their collaborators feel like releasing. It isn’t the characters–which is what you said it was ten years ago, Damon–it’s Damon Albarn’s solo career, but with a built-in fanbase. And I understand the need behind that. I get it. I just wish you could’ve clarified to your fans that this album was a Damon Albarn album. If it was good, we would have bought it. And that’s the problem with Plastic Beach.
Do you not trust me to understand your album from listening to it, Mr. Albarn? Do you honestly think I need to be hit over the head with recurring clips and phrases to understand what you’re trying to say? And do you really not trust me to buy your album unless it has the word Gorillaz stamped above the title? I bought The Good, the Bad & the Queen, Damon. That band doesn’t even have a name. I bought Plastic Beach. But unless you get someone in the studio who can help you find direction and your sound the way Dangermouse or Dan the Automator did, I don’t think I’m gonna buy the next one.
So I went to the Gorillaz show last night. I know, it’s a bit hypocritical of me to write a thousand words on why I didn’t like Plastic Beach and then go to the Plastic Beach world tour, but hey–when the hell else are you gonna see Gorillaz live? And honestly, the show was fantastic. Damon Albarn is a talented individual and a natural performer and you can tell that his band absolutely love being onstage and making music with him. You rarely see a band that large and that dedicated to their purpose, and it was as intoxicating as a live show should be. Now, it’s not perfect cos, y’know, Plastic Beach, but those guys rocked those new songs as hard as they rocked the classics and for Glitter Freeze at least, I was taken in. Doesn’t stop On Melancholy Hill from being a second rate El Mañana, but I digress.
The thing I want to talk about at that show is a pair of quotations that I feel stand on their own if you’re a dedicated enough Gorillaz fan. Both of these I heard within five minutes of each other at the GO Bus station, waiting for the 23:45 QEW Express.
- “Well, you know, they didn’t play Sweepstakes, which I was really looking forward to.” (Don’t wanna read the guest list, then, do ya.)
- Dude: “Who was that old guy? That guy, that old guy who came out for the encore and sang that slow song. He was trying to talk to the audience or something.”
Chick: “Who, that old guy? I dunno.”
Friends: “I dunno.”
… I–I guess Bobby Womack’s name means nothing to you, then? And that you didn’t really listen to the album? Cloud of Unknowing is supposed to be the big culmination of the entire album. Bobby Womack’s performance is, y’know, kinda freakin’ magical. It’s one of the few moments of brilliance on an album that’s mostly slipshod and scattershot, broken dreck. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. Christ, I hate fandom.