Gorillaz are not the world's first virtual band. That honour probably belongs to Alvin and the Chipmunks, who bagged their creators two Grammy awards in 1959. The virtual idols phenomenon originated in Japan in the 1980s, but Damon Albarn, Jamie Hewlett and Remi Kabaka Jr hold the Guinness World Record for creating the world's most successful virtual band, selling in excess of 20 million records.
Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez began life as a monthly web series that blossomed into the seventh Gorillaz album. It opens with one of their best songs yet, Strange Timez, which features the inimitable voice of The Cure's Robert Smith.
Albarn recently told Steve Lamacq that the Gorillaz modus operandi finally made complete sense to him during lockdown when he reached out to collaborators. Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez boasts another whopping cast, featuring Beck, St Vincent, Kano, Peter Hook, Slowthai, Joan as Policewoman, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Skepta, the late Tony Allen and the most eye-catching guest of all, the Rocket Man himself, Sir Elton John.
If you include the sprawling bonus tracks, which are all part and parcel of the streaming era, Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez features 17 songs and weighs in at over an hour. Despite the initial promise of such a great opening gambit, Song Machine doesn’t quite hit the dizzying highs of earlier Gorillaz albums such as Demon Days or Plastic Beach. However, even when Gorillaz deliver slightly underwhelming long players, such as The Now Now, Humanz or Song Machine, they all still feature some priceless moments and terrific songs.
One of the best offerings is a dark and deliciously twisted number, entitled With Love to an Ex, featuring South African futurist ghetto punk Moonchild Sanelly. Malian musician Fatoumata Diawara stars on the wonderfully wistful single Désolé, but the trouble is that these great songs are sandwiched between tracks that are more disposable and cartoonish.
This is a persistent flaw of almost every Gorillaz record, where the concept gets in the way of the music. For example, The Valley of the Pagans features Beck, but it isn’t exactly the best thing either party has ever released. “It’s so convincing, but something’s missing,” Beck aptly sings.
However, St Vincent, Elton John, Peter Hook and Robert Smith all bring something special to the party. Overall, Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez is another instalment of a multimedia musical jamboree that’s been entertaining the world since 1998.
Albarn has been making noises about working with Blur again, but, given how gloriously unpredictable his career has been to date, second-guessing his next move is a complete waste of time. His Song Machine is the perfect antidote to living in strange timez.