Like a party bag full of mad cats, Damon Albarn’s Gorillaz project has always disguised a certain stylistic chaos within its cartoon band conceit. Featuring collaborations with a vast array of distinctive guest artists (Lou Reed, Mark E Smith, Snoop Dogg, Grace Jones, Benjamin Clementine and many others), they began life as an excuse for the Blur frontman to moonlight in slacker hip-hop in 2000 but restlessly morphed into a multi-dimensional beast of a band just about held together by its two-dimensional gift wrap.
Guest-stuffed albums such as 2010’s Plastic Beach and 2017’s Humanz often felt like de facto compilations. So embracing the streaming age tactic of quick-firing individual tracks online for their Song Machine project – a series of songs and videos released monthly throughout 2020, like emergency “stay calm” pandemic broadcasts – seems a natural evolution. And collecting them onto this seventh Gorillaz album (or “season” now they’re an episodic Netflix style franchise) makes for a satisfying round-up of “hits” you blinked and missed.
Over time Gorillaz’ sonic cartoonishness has dissipated, as Albarn used the vehicle to express his political discontent (on Humanz) and explore cutting edge sounds with the freedom and abandon that comes with having grave-green biker zombies and manga punks on the album cover.
The politics here extend only as far as a vague bewilderment at 2020’s calamities: “Pac-Man”, featuring ScHoolboy Q, concerns living in an unreal world while the title track references PPE and bleach with a “weird, innit?” shrug. But Albarn enters new realms of synthetic futurism, transfusing the space funk of Beck (who grooves intergalactically through “The Valley of the Pagans”), the neo R&B of Kano and Octavian (“Dead Butterflies” and “Friday 13th” respectively) and the crisp android pop of St Vincent (“Chalk Tablet Towers”) into acts who perhaps need to retrain for cyber.
So Robert Smith finds himself swarmed by trip-hop phasing, wild gamelan and radar static on “Strange Timez”. Elton goes chillwave on “The Pink Phantom”, as if singing from a walk-in fridge. Peter Hook’s weightless basslines drift across the gorgeous psychedelic landscapes of “Aries”, the best 21st-century New Order song New Order never wrote. Slaves and slowthai rampage through the sci-fi ska of “Momentary Bliss”, the “Baggy Trousers” for a generation more likely to bang teachers on the head with a plastic dongle.
The only constants are Albarn’s drowsy presence, shuffling through songs as if shot in the neck with a tranquiliser dart, and the stout melodicism that makes …Strange Timez the finest Gorillaz album in a decade. With an Apple Beats radio show and, no doubt, further Song Machine seasons in the offing, it looks like the cats are finally out of the bag.