Identity is a construct. It’s a story we tell about ourselves. Sometimes the story becomes too much of a burden, and we spend more time trying to make it coherent than actually being able to go about the business of living. The eye can’t see itself, after all.
It’s possible that all the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves are mostly useless, a dead weight that we might as well leave behind. There’s too much stuff in the world as it is. Too much waste. It’s piling up everywhere. We don’t have much of a use for it, and we’re running out of places to put it.
Maybe Gorillaz, a band composed of four cartoon members, originated as an alternative to the narratives produced by the cult of celebrity. Things are out of control these days; the way fans take ownership of stars’ lives should be classified as a mental illness in the DSM. But the developing saga in the Gorillaz universe is just as nuts as the thing it’s supposed to replace. The band’s drummer Russel is missing, lead vocalist 2D is being held prisoner, and guitarist Noodle, after being presumed dead because of the outbreak of violence at the end of the “El Manana” music video, was reconstituted as a cyborg, thanks to some DNA fragments that bassist Murdoc managed to collect. Murdoc has taken over the band by force. They have relocated to a remote island in the South Pacific, the eponymous plastic beach, which is made mostly of trash. This gives a chance for the group’s only real-life member, Blur frontman Damon Albarn, to make some sideways comments about the impact of modern life on the environment and about the difference between artifice and reality. But ultimately, this construct of a backstory should be relegated to the background; it’s weighty and distracting.
Albarn says Plastic Beach is Gorillaz’s most pop album to date. I have no idea what he means by that. It’s tighter and less nakedly ambitious than 2005’s Demon Days, which was front-loaded with catchy singles, while all Beach has in that category is the hook-less “Stylo” and the almost intolerably goofy De La Soul feature “Superfast Jellyfish.” There are a several passages brightened by electro and Albarn’s oblique take on hip-hop, but on the whole, this newest collection is quieter and more reflective than the Gorillaz of “Feel Good Inc.”
Albarn is handling production himself this time, which allows him to bring an inner calm and coherence to a project that is as stuffed with collaborators as it is burdened by concept. He’s obviously in charge here, but instead of reminding the listener of this fact on every song, he does the same thing with his music that most celebrities do with their identities: he offers the product up to his audience and allows it to take on a life of its own.
Exhibit A: the album’s second track, which is actually a second introduction. A frank and straightforward orchestral intro fades into an understated but irresistible groove. Out of nowhere, Snoop Dogg shows up. “Gorillaz and the boss dog/ Planet of the apes.” He steps back for an entire minute while the beat builds, layering horns and synths on top of the bedrock. Then he returns, still sounding supernaturally chill, scattering one-liners over the track like he’s spreading seeds in soil, reminding us that he’s at least a decade beyond having anything to prove. The song is a hell of an aesthetic balancing act, but Snoop makes it sound easy.
Albarn doesn’t show up on that song or even on the one after it. When we finally hear him, he’s practically whispering, filling the listener’s ears with melancholy lines about weeping engines and rhinestones falling from the sky. But he’s not beating anyone over the head with a message. This is supposed to be pop, after all; he balances his imagery with optimistic soundscapes. These sonic environments patiently push toward a terrestrial paradise instead of nervously trying to imitate one. “Plastic Beach” has a repeated line about a Casio on a plastic beach; “To Binge” illustrates what this Casio might sound like. And although Mos Def-helmed “Sweepstakes” carries a dose of irony, its skittery beat, off-axis synth bass stabs, and brass band calisthenics inject the whole experiment with a shot of genuine euphoria.
Perhaps Plastic Beach is pop in the sense that, while it makes bold experiments, it does so without self-consciousness. It’s high art, but it’s not necessarily supposed to feel like it. The musical pleasures are direct and easy to swallow even when the structures and messages are loose and abstract. “Stylo” is plotted like an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, wandering suddenly onto a nearly hysterical improvisation by Bobby Womack, then stepping back just as suddenly without losing its composure. “Empire Ants” languishes in a hushed mood for a couple minutes before revealing that it had only been telling half the story; it jumps to a higher gear, and Little Dragon drives the rest of the song through a glittering electro skyline. “Some Kind of Nature” chugs along contentedly without acknowledging the bizarre anti-logic of Lou Reed’s half-sung performance.
Albarn doesn’t give us a “Clint Eastwood” or a “Dare” this time around, but in spite of a messy and patently artificial conceptual framework, Plastic Beach feels clean, shiny, and new. It’s artificial, still — there’s a lot more synth here than guitar — but it has soul. It remains a mystery to me how Albarn manages to give up so much prime real estate to his cast of guests without curtailing their identities (with the possible exception of Mos Def on “Stylo”) or letting them dilute the project’s momentum. This plastic beach is a singular little oasis; it’s either miles away from the modern world’s congenital mental illness or it’s made of them. The eye can’t see itself, after all. If you can’t beat a world that is beating itself to death with artifice and consumerism, you might as well join in and make a little paradise out of it.