When Blur frontman Damon Albarn and his comic-book artist friend, Jamie Hewlett, created Gorillaz in 1998, they could scarcely have imagined how much mileage there was in cartoon creations Murdoc, Noodle, Russel and 2-D. Unlike the members of conventional groups, they do not age, burn out or fall out.
Albarn turns 50 next year, but Gorillaz helps to keep him relevant. The virtual band has always been an adaptable vehicle for his most up-to-the-minute ideas, and so it is with Humanz, the band’s fifth album, and the first since 2011’s The Fall.
Big on the contemporary sounds of urban black America and Jamaica, it is at its roots a sprawling and dystopian-sounding record exploring a wide range of issues, from racism to western military intervention in the Middle East.
Surprisingly, given that description, you can dance to most of it, too.
As with previous Gorillaz outings, Humanz is knee-deep in guests. This time, Albarn’s daughter Missy reportedly helped him cherry-pick the voguish and capable American rappers (Vince Staples, D.R.A.M.) he lines up alongside veteran greats such as Grace Jones, De La Soul and gospel singer Mavis Staples.
With 16 tracks (20 on the deluxe edition), spoken-word segues, complex themes and its eclectic mash-up of rap, dancehall, soul, reggae, electronica and indie-pop, Humanz takes time to get to grips with, but several gems emerge with repeat listens.
Neo-soul singer Peven Everett shines on the Michael Jackson-meets-Alexander O’Neal-like Strobelite, while Grace Jones is as creepily commanding as ever on Charger, a song built on a frazzled indie guitar sample and playful Albarn vocal.
With its tropical rainforest sounds, woozy synthesizer and air of beautiful melancholy, Busted and Blue is also special – but the album’s biggest surprise is Noel Gallagher’s guest backing vocals on the succinct and rousing closer, We Got the Power, which also features Jehnny Beth of English band Savages.
This is the same Noel Gallagher, you will remember, who called the first Gorillaz album “appalling – music for [expletive] 12-year-olds”.
He and Albarn, Britpop’s chief sparring partners when the media pitted Oasis against Blur, are clearly on better terms now.