Review: Gorillaz – Cracker Island

Artwork for Gorillaz's 2023 album Cracker Island

Much more is packed in as Gorillaz complete their latest one-two.

Whither Song Machine Season Two? It should always have been obvious that a mind so relentlessly creative as Damon Albarn’s (for it is he in case you weren’t aware) was never likely to stick to one idea for long.

Over the last decade or so the orchestrator of the virtual band has tended to release two Gorillaz albums in quick succession (generally each side of a tour), with the second album being less considered and bombastic.

The scrappily experimental The Fall (2011) was recorded on Albarn’s iPad during the Escape To Plastic Beach world tour in 2010, while The Now Now (coming hot on the heels of the sprawling Humanz in 2018) was something of a ‘solo’ album also recorded largely on the road.

Therefore, Cracker Island prolongs the general pattern although it’s a much more rounded and coherent piece work than the its bedfellows.

Albarn frequently smothers his themes and observations in Gorillaz under oblique references (and there’s plenty to be found here) but, when announcing the album, guitarist Noodle claimed it is, ‘the sound of change and the chorus of the collective’.

Meaning: the latest adventure for our cartoon heroes is joining a cult in California as metaphor for our collective reliance on technology, a topic with which Albarn has dabbled before (on 2014 solo album Everyday Robots) but offers rich ploughs to furrow.

The album has been long trailed, with the title-track released as a single back in June, but it has lost none of its pop power perfection in the intervening 8 months.

The ghostly presence of Thundercat adds purpose to the rapid disco slink of the guitars while Albarn/2-D gives us a condensed history of the occultist sect: ‘They were planting seeds at night to grow a made-up paradise where the truth was auto-tuned.’

But the cracks are already showing on subtle The Tired Influencer (red meat to those who say Albarn is an egomaniac), which dreamily soars despite taking place in a ‘cracked screen world’.

No matter how altered his voice or whatever the instrumentation, the Blur frontman cannot betray hide his specialism of melancholic pop, of which Silent Running is the latest example.

Instructively catchy and moodily cathartic (‘I got so lost here, machine assisted I disappeared’), it’s the best example of the metaphorical world in which the album resides and a superb pop song to boot, Adeleye Omotayo’s backing vocals layering further emotion but far from superfluous.

Although the quality levels don’t falter at the halfway point the theme sort of…stops, once Bootie Brown has referenced Paul Revere (from the religious sect Embassy Of Heaven) on New Gold, a Tame Impala song in all but name, for better or worse.

As is standard, Brown and Kevin Parker contribute alongside a handful of other household names from Albarn’s hefty black book: Stevie Nicks pops up on the wistful Oil (‘recall the log from the early database of your love’) and Beck comes in right at the death for the grandstanding Possession Island, on which Albarn embraces being the ‘old crooner’ he once described himself as.

Indeed, Cracker Island foregrounds his vocals more than any other Gorillaz record since The Now Now, especially on the sturdy Tarantula on which he gives himself a real workout.

While Albarn hands over the reggaeton Tormenta to Bad Bunny (who rhymes in Spanish) he keeps Baby Queen to himself, which has a delicious verse but lacks a chorus and overstays its welcome.

Lastly, the gloriously raucous Skinny Ape moves from ballad to frenzied mosher, arguably the best representation to date of its writer’s stylistic eccentricities, even if it does explode in a style not dissimilar to latter-day Coldplay.

Is Cracker Island a quasi-sequel to Plastic Beach? Is it a diatribe of the modern world? Only Albarn can say, but either way it’s a superb pop album.

Decks cleared, next stop: Wembley Stadium.

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