“It’s a cracked-screen world,” sings Damon Albarn on Cracker Island, the eighth studio album from everyone’s favorite cartoon band. Since 2001, Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett have used their Gorillaz project to hold a carnival mirror up to society. The universe they’ve built is wild, dark, and wacky, distorting the art and politics of our own world into a 20+ year party playlist for the end times. When life gets rough, human beings find freedom on the dance floor — this is something Damon Albarn understands instinctively. “Are we the last living souls?… Get up!” Albarn sang back on 2005’s Demon Days, and Cracker Island is its creators’ latest groovy reflection on our insane modern world.
Albarn has enjoyed a career most artists can only dream of. The story is the stuff of legend at this point: after bearing the standard for the Britpop generation as the frontman of Blur, Albarn went left-field — teaming up with comic book artist Jamie Hewlett to create the world’s first “virtual band.” The experiment paid off, to say the least, with Gorillaz achieving greater success in both the U.S. and worldwide than Blur ever reached, and elevating Albarn to bonafide auteur status.
Albarn has always been a jet setter — famously soaking up inspiration from everywhere he hangs his hat. 2001’s Mali Music, his collaboration with Afel Bocoum and Toumani Diabaté & Friends, was born out of his journeys through Mali, a country whose music he’s long since championed. Elsewhere, work on Blur’s comeback album, 2015’s The Magic Whip, began during an extended layover in Hong Kong after a canceled festival appearance in Japan. In that spirit, Cracker Island is Albarn’s California album, recorded in LA and boasting a sunny demeanor and plenty of Golden State guest stars and references. The project kicks off with the Thundercat-featuring title track, with the bass virtuoso offering his distinctive plucking and falsetto over a textured instrumental. While Albarn’s vocal melody on the verse feels a little rudimentary and gets a bit redundant, the song’s lyrics succeed in welcoming us to the album’s ebullient but sinister setting: “Where the truth was auto-tuned / And its sadness, I consumed.” This textural space is expanded on the following track, “Oil,” which features the album’s most surprising guest star, Stevie Nicks. Her iconic gravely voice enters with a dark bassline to give the track a gleefully ominous feel, while her harmonies help to entrance listeners: “You can’t hеlp yourself anymore and the madness comes / You’ll be falling into the bass and drum.”
“The Tired Influencer” features the album’s most famous guest star: Siri — you know, the Apple assistant. A song about trying to keep up with a changing world, you can almost picture the 54-year-old Albarn asking Siri how to navigate LA’s labyrinth of neighborhoods and music trends. A cultural chameleon, Albarn has always managed to keep up with the times while remaining true to himself, and this track demonstrates that those efforts aren’t always easy. “Silent Running,” one of the album’s strongest cuts, is a hypnotic meditation on social media and addiction: “Machine-assisted, I disappear.” Elsewhere, “New Gold” is a classic Gorillaz single in its sound and execution, pairing The Pharchyde’s Bootie Brown with Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker. Playing a smaller vocal role, Albarn shines most in his role of a curator on this song, craftily blending the styles of his different collaborators into something that sounds legitimately new.
But then there’s “Baby Queen,” where Cracker Island hits a bit of a dip. Relying too much on vocal layering and an over-extended synth arpeggio to create atmosphere, the song feels undercooked in both melody and structure. “Tarantula” comes off slightly better, offering a bit more in the way of groove and style, aided by Bad Bunny, who delivers an infectious vocal melody against the lush reggaeton production. We then move into the record’s penultimate track, “Skinny Ape,” which is another standout, doing what Gorillaz does best: taking listeners on a wild voyage from folksy ballad territory to a charmingly breezy (almost lazy even) verse to straight-up synth-pop chaos. It’s a slow burn with a strange structure, but one that effectively coheres its disparate parts. And it has an even stranger inspiration: apparently born out of an encounter with an Amazon delivery bot (classic Albarn fodder). Like a Gorillaz album, the track is a bit all over the place, but it’s the kind of oddity that Albarn so often — and indeed here — makes work.
While it may not achieve the classic status of high-point predecessors like 2010’s Plastic Beach — Gorillaz’ utterly fantastic concept album about our relationship with the environment, disposability, and authenticity (and one of the best records of its decade) — Cracker Island does feel like something of a spiritual successor. It’s quintessentially Albarn in the way it spins anxiety and isolation into conviviality — sailing from one forsaken getaway to another without forgetting that this is supposed to be a vacation. Indeed, Albarn’s lonely tourism may be the defining quality of a Gorillaz album. Playing genre mixologist, he curates sounds and collaborators from unexpected ends of the musical map, and yet for someone with such a global network of friends, Albarn always seems to wind up alone with his thoughts. On Plastic Beach, the late, great Bobby Womack sang of the “cloud of unknowing.” Sometimes peace is best found not through adventure or achievement, but by sitting in a space of mystery and wonder. Cracker Island ends on a similar notion with the shantying “Possession Island”: “The time I came to California, I died / At the hands of the coasting queen / Where things, they don’t exist / And we’re all in this together ’til the end.”
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 9.