‘Cracker Island’ Is Gorillaz’s Most Purely Pleasurable LP Yet

GORILLAZ - Credit: Courtesy of Nasty Little Man
GORILLAZ - Credit: Courtesy of Nasty Little Man

There are two dials at Gorillaz HQ which determine 1) how many guests will be on an album, and 2) how elaborate its broader cartoon lore will be. 2018’s The Now Now, positioned as a solo album by Damon Albarn’s “2-D” alter ego, had minimal guests and only the slightest bit of extra-textual hijinks. On the other hand, 2020’s wildly overstuffed Song Machine project, in which every track was accompanied by at least one guest and a new cartoon detailing the band’s ongoing dystopian adventures, turned both dials to 11. Every track was a single, bursting with set pieces and pivots; it all “worked,” but it was a lot to take in, like a 12-course dinner composed of all entrées. One can only eat so much lobster.

The new Cracker Island — originally begun as “Season Two” of Song Machine before being reworked as a traditional album — turns both dials to a comfortable middle setting and cruises. It’s the easiest-going and most purely pleasurable Gorillaz album since their opening one-two punch, 20-some years ago. Guests feel purposeful, filtered into the indie-funk melange with ease. Thundercat gets to uncork some walking bass lines over a Daft Punk-worthy mirrorball groove, and Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker trades verses with the Pharcyde’s Bootie Brown on a synth-pop scorcher that’d be at home on, well, a Tame Impala record. Previous Gorillaz LPs suffered from guest-spot whiplash: Here’s Pusha T and Bobby Womack, and now on the stage is Elton John, ladies and gentlemen. Here only two stick out, with songs built to take advantage of their incongruity. The Bad Bunny collab “Tormenta” pilots the band’s kick-drum-fueled dirigible to the Caribbean, finding a reggaeton riddim for the MC to do backflips on, and “Oil” enlists Stevie Nicks, whose inimitable countermelodies help the band find hope amid (per the lyrics) “interlocking cluster bombs like bass and drums.”

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Make no mistake, this is still a Gorillaz LP, and the band’s broader saga has not let up a bit. (Did you know someone from the Powerpuff Girls was briefly in the band?) Cracker Island, the fictional place, is home to a crazed cult, and reachable only via submarine. Some of the record’s more deranged metaphors will leave those in Gorillaz’s online cult reaching for narrative clues. But the most cartoonish thing about the actual LP is its wildly varied musical palette. Albarn, working with Adele producer Greg Kurstin, fills the record with trilling steel drums, baleful mariachi horns, even a playful riff on the iPhone’s default ringtone.

At 10 tracks and clocking in under 40 minutes, this is Gorillaz’s tightest LP, and yet its sense of purpose gives Albarn some room to breathe, to sing and sigh and weave little melancholy melodies about our “cracked-screen world” into the twisted, Hanna-Barbera milieu. He’s clearly having fun, chanting “ape!” in the synth-punk freakout “Skinny Ape” until it twists into a pitch-shifted “oi,” even as he gazes at the hydrofoils on the horizon, the beaches still strewn with plastic. For all the record’s sonic pleasures, Gorillaz’s concerns with Trumpism and climate collapse are more to the fore than ever. And yet Albarn can’t help but conclude on a hopeful note, duetting with a barely-there Beck that “we’re in this together/till the end.” Two decades and eight albums in, you believe him.

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