Eight Albums in, The Gorillaz Universe Is Still Expanding
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Something about Damon Albarn examining the intersection of technology and art through the prism of a literal virtual band just works too well. Gorillaz are still going strong after over two decades as a group, and their eighth album Cracker Island (out Friday, February 24th), shows the British band going from strength to strength; they are a full-on genre-shifting machine whose very existence is already an exploration about the dangers that come from our online and physical worlds overlapping. Using Gorillaz as a medium to probe these very ideas in Cracker Island is something almost meta; but this has been the essence of the band from the start.
Gorillaz have never been regarded as an Albarn “side-project” from his Britpop band Blur, as the two groups are already fully-fledged entities within their own right. With star-studded appearances from the likes of Stevie Nicks, Thundercat, Tame Impala, Bad Bunny, and Beck, Cracker Island is yet another audacious, vibrant effort from the band.
If 2010’s Plastic Beach critiqued the superficial nature of consumerism and material validation in late-stage capitalism, Cracker Island — a treasure trove of pop-culture references — dives into the disillusionment you lose yourself in amidst an artificial society set to collapse at any moment. In its crudest sense, a “cracker” is a contemptuous British slang phrase used to refer to “a white person in the South [of England],” with Albarn elaborating on BBC Radio 1: “It’s a story about people sort of what happens on this island how a cult, a mad mad cult is formed and what happens to it.” And so, an island full of them could signify a dystopian echo chamber of simple, one-note thinking.
Gorillaz records are cultural critiques of some sort; this album takes a closer look at social media, indoctrination through technology, the media’s manipulation of information with auto-tuned truths — all grounded through groove-induced art pop that spans decades and genres.
“Cracker Island” is not a physical entity of a region, but perhaps a philosophical manifestation of being disillusioned and its “made-up paradise.” Its fictional setting could very well be Los Angeles, where part of the album was recorded, but “Cracker Island” is very much is a state of mind and a state of judgment. There are plenty of allusions to the Golden State, its freeways, and specific mentions to the city’s Silver Lake neighborhood.
As far as the lore of the virtual band goes, the foursome relocated to the City of Angels where they became involved in its dark underbelly through cults, occultism, and the search for fame and success in the name of personal enrichment. There is maybe no better city to bask in disillusionment within the digital age than L.A. (all coastal elite biases aside), and it acts as the perfect backdrop for all the feelings of disenchantment that coat Cracker Island.
The Thundercat-assisted title track is an ambitious way to start the record, setting the tone for the rest of the LP with metaphors that liken being a “cult follower” (“Forever cult”) to a regular member of society. The funky, pulsating number is an instant earworm, and literally begins with being manipulated as a regular citizen and “purging” of the soul through mainstream media with the goal of a so-called “brainwashing”: “In the end, I had to pay (I drank to riot)/ Nothing more to say (I drank to riot).”
Within Gorillaz lore, it alludes to its members becoming indoctrinated by cults and partaking in its rituals, but in a wider sense, it could also apply to the kind of standom that the band have accrued in a more meta sense, and the harms that come with worshipping an artist of that regard.
There is an ’80s-inspired psychedelic sheen throughout the album, most notably on “Oil,” featuring vocals from Stevie Nicks. It’s the most rose-colored Albarn gets on the record; in trying to find solutions to his growing indifference, Albarn suggests that it is our relationships with one another that are ultimately the most rewarding parts of human nature: “Individual actions change the world/ Fill them up with love,” the two voices croon.
“The Tired Influencer” is the most thematically accessible track on the record, a meditative number about a literal crack-screened world: “Just trying to keep my head up, but nothing real anymore/ In the world of the tired influencer.” In the macrocosm of Cracker Island, influencers refer to artists, musicians, and creators. Album highlight “Silent Running” harkens to the sort of jaded nature as Albarn meanders through a life of half-truths, and the slow journey to disappearing into the world of the literal infinite scroll and the lawless pandemonium of the internet: “I got caught up in nowhere again.” The journey to becoming eaten alive by social media is not a sprint, hence the “Silent Running” of the song’s title; the journey to apathy is a zombifying one.
There are several mentions to being “underwater” on the Tame Impala and Bootie Brown-guested track “New Gold,” a shimmering, hypnotic number (containing shout-outs to A Fish Called Wanda, Elon Musk, and a one Pauly Shore) ideal for soundtracking an illegal rave or doing magic mushrooms to. “I wonder if she knows that we’re underwater/ That’s the way it goes in this city wonder,” bemoans Kevin Parker, suggesting a state of being submerged so deeply in an echo chamber that it’s difficult to take stock of your surroundings.
Tracks “Baby Queen” — based on a true story involving the princess of Thailand attending a Blur show in 1997 — play with ideas around the passage of time, while “Tarantula” details a depressed, lonely mental state after being jaded. The lovely “Tormenta” (featuring Bad Bunny) is a Reggaeton number that provides some sonic release in the latter stages of the record, while the stripped-down, bittersweet album closer “Possession Island” featuring Beck is the ideal (if not melancholy and slightly ominous) palate-cleanser suggesting that despite all of its harms, the internet has collectively brought us all together — for better or for worse: “Where things they don’t exist/ And we’re all in this together ’till the end.”
There is no such truth as a “best” Gorillaz album, given how subjective the term is. But one thing is true: Albarn (and Gorillaz) get better and better with each record they put out, so much so that each album is by default “the best” given the scope, breadth, and capacity of this very musical project. Eight albums in, Gorillaz are still capable of producing a fresh, rich album that spans genres and moods, with so many different textures and sonic fabrics that they have cultivated a musical universe of their own. Long live Damon Albarn and Gorillaz.
Gorillaz are set to perform at this year’s Coachella. Find tickets here.
Essential Tracks: “Silent Running (feat. Adeleye Omotayo),” “Oil (feat. Stevie Nicks),” “New Gold (feat. Tame Impala and Bootie Brown)”
Cracker Island Album Artwork:
Eight Albums in, The Gorillaz Universe Is Still Expanding
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