When you’ve earned the luxury of being represented by a digitally animated band when it suits you, rather than slapping your own face on the product for every video, there’s no limit to the possibilities of sounds, ideas, concepts and collaborations you can take on. And for the past 20 years of their existence, that’s what Gorillaz have done.
But on their sixth album, The Now Now, they cut back on the frivolities, attuning their colourful fiction to a grim reality.
Created by Blur’s Damon Albarn and artist Jamie Hewlett, Gorillaz formed as an antidote to mainstream, MTV culture with their virtual bandmates, highlighting the darkness and the contradictions of the modern world. Over time, the reliance on the various fictional characters created by Albarn and Hewlett has arguably receded so much that Gorillaz had become faceless.
On The Now Now, Albarn's presence is everywhere. The introspective themes of loneliness and isolation cast a pall as he tries to voice his concerns in a world that corrupts and takes no prisoners.
"I'm the lonely twin, the left hand. Reset myself and get back on track," Albarn sings over the bouncy, tropical rhythm of Humility. "I don't want this isolation. See the state I'm in now?"
On this lone journey, he dives into the world of dopamine-driven indulgences on Tranz and Hollywood, with Tranz using spiralling synths to match a fragmented state of mind and the cleverly seedy Hollywood calling in house music legend Jamie Principle and Snoop Dogg to add some much-needed bite.
With an intentional feeling of burnout coming from Albarn, The Now Now outlines the lows that follow the excesses of people, partying, ego, fame, money and power, and it's the comedown that his grainy voice suits so well.
He woozily pushes the melancholy on Fire Flies as a man who is sick of chasing something – or someone – that rejects him at every turn. On the rustic Idaho, he pulls a disappearing act and retreats into nature – "Idaho, Idaho. There's a beauty on the road and everyday I look out of the bus, silver linings getting lost," he sings. While the song might illustrate an escape from the shiny distractions of Tinseltown, Albarn revealed during a Gorillaz concert in Los Angeles last year that he wrote the song when the band stopped off in Idaho on tour, winding up in Bruce Willis's ski lodge.
A Gorillaz album usually comes locked and loaded with a hefty roll call of collaborators: Little Dragon, Grace Jones, De La Soul, Shaun Ryder, Lou Reed and Bobby Womack have contributed to past albums. But the lack of guest appearances on The Now Now reduces the size of the fantastical world that Albarn and Hewitt have dreamed up, leaving less room for the unexpected and highlighting the central theme of loneliness.
In a quest to find answers, songs such as the hazy Magic City capture how easy it is to get lost in thought, to drift further and further away from reality – "You got me lost in Magic City. You got me questioning it all. I hope that I make it home by Wednesday and this Magic City lets me go."
When Albarn and Hewitt started Gorillaz, if felt like they were letting us in on a dark joke. However, where once there was manic laughter, such as on their 2005 single Feel Good Inc, The Now Now carries the burden of the never-ending slew of bad news. We're beyond the point of laughing. Lost and despondent, the mask and the anarchy of the animated band is fading, with the human side becoming clearer and clearer.