Gorillaz, Cracker Island review: Damon Albarn’s band of apes return with their best album since 2005

Gorillaz have always been an apocalypse party of an act, but now, they’re laughing again (Gorillaz)
Gorillaz have always been an apocalypse party of an act, but now, they’re laughing again (Gorillaz)

“I’m on one per cent, but I’m there with you,” croons 2D on Gorillaz’ most enjoyable album since 2005’s Demon Days. It’s a sentiment that reflects the record’s commitment to finding collective fun in the face of isolating fatigue. Gorillaz have always been an apocalypse party of an act, but now, they’re laughing again. There’s a loose-limbed elation to the indie-funk grooves they find, with guests ranging from Fleetwood Mac’s Stevie Nicks to Australian psych-rockers Tame Impala and LA bass-bouncer Thundercat. And a sleepy solidarity in the more melancholy moments, which include a tender acoustic duet with Beck.

Britain’s first virtual band was created in 2001 by Damon Albarn and Tank Girl artist Jamie Hewlett in response to what the earnest indie purists saw as the “manufactured” state of chart music. But over the next two decades, the project has given the Blur frontman an excuse to dial up an eclectic “circus” cast of dream collaborators, throwing pop A-listers into the ring with rappers, experimental knob-twiddlers and vintage soul stars, and spicing the sound with world music to create a new genre of “backpacker hip-hop”.

Their eighth record imagines Albarn’s eccentric quartet of manga monkeys –  bassist Murdoc, drummer Russel, and guitarist Noodle – leaving London for California and starting a cult. Disciples are instructed to “follow the rhythm not the algorithm”. In a recent interview, Albarn said he was playing with the many ideas associated with the word “cracker”: madness, dry biscuits, explosive Christmas gifts, and the US slang for white people. “Cracker Island,” he said, “would be like an echo chamber for the alt-right.”

The album opens with the gritty cyberfunk of its title track. Albarn has always done a brilliant job of channelling his inner bored-bolshy teen as 2D. Here, he drawls out a laconic-snarky lament about a world in which “the truth was auto tuned”. Meanwhile, Thundercat chants “forever cult” in smooth, high, pleasing tones behind him. The Californian’s distinctive bass technique slaps a tendon-twanging elasticity into the ennui.

The momentum is maintained on “Oil”, which is low on melody but rich in (enjoyably inscrutable) poetic imagery. Seasoned with the dirty honey of Stevie Nicks’ backing vocals, lines about “fairy light companions to the dark maths” sparkle through the mix. There’s a loping Eighties marimba gait to “The Tired Influencer” and a sorrow in its melodic camber that lightly recalls the final Blur single, “Under the Westway”. Lyrically, it’s a US version of that elegy to suburban hipster life beneath the elevated stretch of London’s A40. Now, Albarn describes a “cracked screen world” scented by Los Angelean blooms and glowing freeways.

Blur memories also bubble up on the slo-mo churn of “Baby Queen”. Back in 1997, the princess of Thailand was seated on a throne in front of the mixing desk at a Blur concert. On hearing “Song 2” (“wooo-hooo!”), the diminutive royal climbed onto her seat and stage-dived into the armed guards surrounding the platform. “She takes flight/ Yeh the kid’s alright,” affirms Albarn as 2D, reflecting that around that time he took a similar dive “into the vanity/ The mirrored nights/ of my dreams/ All blown up/ Baby Queen”.

Signs that Cracker Island is designed to be a summer album sizzle though the heat-haze synths of “Silent Running” (featuring soulful contributions from Adeleye Omotayo) and the hip-sloshing dancefloor pulse of “New Gold” (feat Tame Impala and Bootie Brown). “Tarantula” is a triumph of a bittersweet banger, set on the “polymer dunes”, and “Tormenta” (feat Bad Bunny) gives a dreamy Latin lilt to the plastic paradise. The Puerta Rican Reggaeton rapper’s punchy syllables balance for 2D’s plaintive poesy.

It’s a joy to hear Albarn really let rip on “Skinny Ape”,  which evolves from a pretty, pad-drum mope into a riotous rave. You can already see the soles of the festival crowd’s Converse pogoing from the squashed grass as they bawl along: “Ape, ape, ape, APE!”

Listeners drift away from “Cracker Island” to the music-box melody of “Possession Island”, on which Beck wraps a vocal arm around 2D’s shoulder as they sing that we’re “all in this together ’til the end”. A warm trumpet plays an elevating last post. It sounds like the 21st-century version of the quartet on the Titanic. Brothers, beautifully and bravely doomed.