Album Review: Gorillaz – Cracker Island

[Parlophone; 2023]

You are Damon Albarn. You happen to have every major artist on the planet in your rolodex. You own a fancy West London studio space where you can churn out offbeat alt-pop tracks at your heart’s leisure, with state-of-the-art equipment to boot. You have accumulated enough fame and fortune to get away with confessing to Zane Lowe that one of your biggest hits was actually an Omnichord-preset. It must be good to be Damon Albarn.

For the co-founder and producer of Gorillaz, the notion of an animated band provided a perfect smokescreen to take real musical risks, unburdened by the legacy of Albarn’s other high profile band Blur. You could mix and match some of the greatest musical talents within fresh, inspired contexts, often with thrilling results that are just the right amount of ‘left-of-center’. For example, Albarn had Bobby Womack go completely demonic on “Stylo” to a point where the late soul legend had to be fed bananas to keep him from passing out. On staple hit “Feel Good Inc.”, the recently passed De La Soul-rapper Trugoy The Dove delivered a verse with such frenzied bravado, it easily obliterated its main hook.

If Gorillaz proved one thing over the years, it’s that with too much money and too much equipment, you can literally go insane, break convention and still achieve mainstream appeal. But in an age where David Guetta of all people can use AI-tech to clone Eminem’s voice and call it ‘the future’ with a creepy half-blink, the fast-fading novelty of a virtual band may (or, hopefully, may not) have run its expiration date. Unfortunately, Gorillaz’ latest LP Cracker Island sure as heck feels like it.

The premise of Cracker Island is pretty much the premise of every Gorillaz record. Under the guise of flimsy synopsis about ’the sound of change’ and ‘the chorus of the collective’, the group have once again dialled up an all-star cast of musical guests dropping by to borrow a feeling. Back in Gorillaz’ heyday, these collaborations felt secondary to Jamie Hewlett’s vivid world-building. But with the last few albums, it has become the project’s main selling point, which could be chalked up to  no longer bothering to hide behind the colorful imagery. It’s kind of like Jim Henson deciding to be part of the scene himself, and it takes away some of Gorillaz’ inherent mystique.

For all intents and purposes, having Kevin Parker (Tame Impala), Bad Bunny, Stevie Nicks and Beck on the same record sounds infinitely better on paper than it does in reality. Albarn has always been an advocate for craftsmanship and tangibility, which makes it all the more more staggering that the bulk of songs on Cracker Island sounds like AI-generated effigies of the real thing, with many collaborators jumping in to perform the same ol’ party tricks. Thundercat’s honeyed vocal hooks are something we already heard before on records like Drunk, you’d hope to hear an artist of his talents try something new behind the veil of the Gorillaz-verse. Now it sounds like a landfill idea that’s conveniently repurposed.

Furthermore, it’s a damn shame to have an iconic voice like Stevie Nicks at your behest and have it play second fiddle to Albarn’s reedy, agreeable baritone. “Oil” takes the conservative route by opting for a contemporary take on Fleetwood Mac’s Tango In The Night-era. It becomes a self-defeating, redundant quest, however, with so many current artists making the spirit of that record their own.

When Cracker Island does dare to draw outside of the lines sonically, you find yourself relieved rather than engaged. Bad Bunny is in prime form on the suave “Tormenta”, and Beck adds a warm sentimental layer to “Possession Island”, which promptly breaks out in a horizon-peering mariachi flourish. It’s one of those scarce pique-your-ears moments on Cracker Island, the kind of moments Gorillaz albums used to have in abundance.

Most tracks on the record remind you of pop staples that are infinitely better. ”The Tired Influencer” sounds like an aloof take on Billy Idol’s “Eyes Without a Face”. Parker and Bootie Brown (The Pharcyde) can’t save “New Gold” from fumbling like an even more outdated version of The Chemical Brothers’ “Galvanize”. “Skinny Ape” has some exciting stuff going, marrying Gomez/Beta Band electro-folk stylings with an adrenaline-rushed synth-pop takeoff that probably flies well when sync’ed to the latest football recaps. But we already heard the damn “JCB Song” too much, and it’s dreadful. “Skinny Ape” is way better than that at least; it has enough inventiveness, twists and turns to have to lean on a melody that MGMT already immortalised.

In the aforementioned interview with Lowe, Albarn frustratingly pointed out that just because your collaborators are top shelf, doesn’t mean the results will be any good. It’s a shame he doesn’t take his own advice, since he has the capacity to write timeless, big-hearted pop music that strikes a deep emotional chord. Blur’s 20-year old LP Think Tank – a de facto Albarn solo record – comes to mind, which captured the zeitgeist of the impending war in Iraq with a poignancy few peers could match.

With Gorillaz, you have this vast audiovisual playground that can mirror itself to the world, like the best fiction can potentially accomplish. You’d wish the music and the visual world would cooperate more on equal footing, to create a strong narrative instead of a shallow backdrop. Gorillaz has been a marquee name since the days of Bush and Blair, and you feel that longevity holds more merit and weight than trite escapism. It would be cool to see Gorillaz tap into their long continuity for future records and have something more substantial to say in the process.

From purely a musical standpoint, it’s far too easy to lambast Albarn as ‘lazy’ for blatantly building Gorillaz’ iconic first single “Clint Eastwood” off a synth preset. In fact, there is illumination in working around that very limitation, and people resonated to that – if anything, it’s an example of his uncanny resourcefulness and instincts as a musician, songwriter and composer. Cracker Island’s forgettable, milquetoast assembly line of tracks – though crisply and professionally engineered – proves that having it all shouldn’t always mean using it all.