Album review: Song Machine: Strange Timez – Gorillaz
Archie Lockyer reviews Gorillaz’ latest project.
To talk about Gorillaz is to talk about Russell Hobbs, Noodle, 2D and Murdoc (the zany, animated band members of the band). Whilst being the brainchild of Damon Alban (of Blur fame), the fictional characters of the band have become personalities within themselves. I do not think of Gorillaz as “Damon Alban” bur rather these charming, intriguing but morally ambiguous cartoons. The story that Alban has written for them is utterly intriguing with Strange Timez furthering my deep love for the characters and their struggles. At the same time, Strange Timez also provides a kooky, off-kilter new sound amongst the band’s repertoire which brought me both tears as well as frenetic smiles.
Strange Timez is an album about overcoming isolation
I would wholeheartedly recommend that Strange Timez is best understood through watching the music videos as well as listening to the music itself, with the often psychedelic but permanently gorgeous animation by Jamie Hewlett being another standout for the new Gorillaz album despite the major setbacks that he faces due to the COVID crisis currently at hand.
Before, discussing the actual music, I wish to discuss the meaning of the album. The genius of Strange Timez is how Alban has interweaved meaning for both the audience, who will be listening in an untimed pandemic, the colourful bandmembers particularly Murdoc and 2D as well as Alban’s own feelings and experiences throughout life. Ultimately Strange Timez is an album about overcoming isolation, whether it be in the context of the pandemic or for the band itself (for the last 5 years of the band, Murdoc and 2D have been at loggerheads over who the “frontman” of the band is), the interweaving meaning of this message throughout the album left me profoundly deepened whilst listening to it in it’s entirety.
The constant sense that Murdoc is slowly being left behind (as shown through the music videos), which would be unthinkable at the formation of the band where he was certainly the leading figure of the group, is another element of Alban and Hewlett’s genius, intriguing both new listeners to the group as well as creating a complex chemistry within the band, that can be quite frankly heart-breaking to watch and listen to throughout the album.
The music on the album itself is arguably the band’s best collection of tracks since 2011’s Plastic Beach, with the limitations that Alban faced with the creation of the album becoming one of it’s greatest strengths. Each song has a different collaborator on it, leading to entirely different sounds, tones and emotions on each song.
Of course, there are traditional Gorillaz electronic/rock tunes as shown through the “Valley of Pagans” which features another of artist I listen to, Beck which would often stick in my head with its vibrant and zany theme. But more importantly, the oddness of it’s lyrics linked with it’s funky beats leading to a song that is bound to be replayed eternally. “Aries” features New Order and Joy Division Bassist, Peter Hook which allows for the inclusion of a more traditional rock song, that combines a wonderfully express discontent with an incredible use of guitar.
However, I would argue Strange Timez’s strongest asset is it’s portfolio of more melancholic ballads such as “The Lost Chord” which often lead me in tears for it’s slower tempo, which left a lot of time to contemplate isolation and my own experiences throughout being stuck at home. I am convinced that Alban’s use of calmer, less frenzied songs on this album is for us to think more on our own experiences whilst also being able to express himself on his feelings of loneliness and disconnect during lockdown. “The Pink Phantom” continues this trend featuring Elton John, who is undoubtedly my favourite featured artist on any of the songs in Strange Timez as his dynamic and operatic voice contrasts nicely with 2D (sung by Albam).
Strange Timez is not without it’s surprises either; “”Friday 13th” Featuring Octavian, was a song I initially dreaded, not being a fan of Octavian at all, yet the song itself has become rather catchy and a nice change of pace from Alban. The use of hip-hop in Gorillaz has always been a staple but in Strange Timez it really does contemplate the overall themes rather well, with both the featuring of Slaves and Slowthai on “Momentary Bliss” as well as Kano and Roxani Arias on “Dead Butterflies” providing further distinction on the album.
Overall, I would wholeheartedly recommend Strange Timez to everyone, whether it be the first Gorillaz album or a return for those who were slightly put off by recent releases from Gorillaz such as “Humanz” which was met with mixed reviews by fans and critics alike. It’s combination of electronic and melancholy is truly masterful and Alban’s themes of isolation further make Strange Timez, one of the best Gorillaz albums released.