Even as one of music’s most forward-facing artists, Damon Albarn must have been surprised by the prescience of his statement that the 2017 Gorillaz album “Humanz” was a “party record for the world going nuts.” Planet Earth’s apocalyptic shindig was only just beginning but Albarn has always been supernaturally gifted at reading the room, blessed with an ability to make music that is both timeless and a perfect snapshot of the era in which it was created.
Albarn has many different guises. He’s the live-wire frontman of Blur, the ringleader of the Good, the Bad & the Queen and the provocateur of Africa Express’s frantic improvised jams. As chief orchestrator in Gorillaz, his cartoon-pop project with the artist Jamie Hewlett, he appears to revel in pulling together a bunch of seemingly disparate musicians, watching them bounce off each other and pinball into places they wouldn’t usually be found. That sense of joyous mayhem is at the centre of “Song Machine, Season One – Strange Timez,” which feels as of its moment as “Humanz” did three years ago. It’s a collection fueled with the sense that every second counts.
That certainly ties in with Albarn’s recent productivity. He’s been working as though someone erected a Doomsday Clock in his West London studio. Following “Humanz,” he put out two records in 2018: Gorillaz’s sixth album “The Now Now” and “Merrie Land,” the second effort from the Good, the Bad & the Queen, his project with the Clash’s Paul Simonon, the Verve’s Simon Tong and the pioneering, late drummer Tony Allen. If “Humanz” was the party for the end of the world, “Merrie Land” was the hangover, Albarn surveying the wreckage of modern Britain in a melancholic state of the Brexit nation address. Here, though, he sounds like he’s got his pecker up. By its very nature, “Song Machine” seems like a project designed to keep Albarn on his toes.
Announced back in the old world of January 2020, Gorillaz’s “Song Machine” is a sort of virtual singles club that has been releasing music episodically throughout the year, with this set collecting the unit’s output over the past 10 months. Gorillaz albums are never lacking in impressive guests, but in an era where human connection is to be cherished more than ever, there’s something special about hearing Albarn vocally spar with the Cure’s Robert Smith on the pulsing synth-pop of “Strange Timez” or have his doleful melodies underpinned by lithe basslines of former New Order member Peter Hook, as they are on the galvanizing surge of “Aries.”
“Strange Timez’s” A-List visitors sound like they’ve been freed up by the holiday to Gorillazland. The neo-soul balladry of the Pink Phantom contains one of Elton John’s best modern choruses, teed up delightfully by Atlanta singer 6lack, and two men in their fifties shouldn’t be making a sound as youthfully ebullient as Albarn and Beck do on the future-funk swagger of “Valley of the Pagans.”
The way that Albarn’s croon airily dissipates under the yelped vocal of St. Vincent on the jubilant electronic pop of “Chalk Tablet Towers” is key to what makes Gorillaz’s music work. In an era that’s become too reliant on guest features and scene-stealing cameos, here the delicately-honed collaborative approach seems to bypass any kowtowing to ego. There’s an at-ease alchemy at work.
That all stems from Albarn, who doesn’t crop up when he isn’t needed. When L.A. rapper Schoolboy Q appears for a searing verse to guide “Pac-Man” to an irrepressible conclusion, or UK grime pioneer Kano brings the dreamy “Dead Butterflies” into focus with his urgent bars, for example, Albarn is happy to fade into the background.
That final track “How Far?” features a contribution from the late Tony Allen, a frequent collaborator of Albarn over the years, adding a sense of poignancy to this celebratory record. At a point when everyone has had their year’s supply of introspection, this is Gorillaz’s most outwardly-facing album. There’s no getting away from it, these are strange times. Damon Albarn knows more than most that music’s warm embrace might just help soften the blows.
“Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez”