If this is the sound of good music in this tentative spring of 2017, then there is hope yet for the arts. And where there is hope for the arts, there is hope for our politics.
Humanz, the follow-up to Gorillaz' 2010 release The Fall, announces its ambitions in its title: how can we take this 26-track collection as anything but an attempt to illuminate in neon chiaroscuro the state of humanity in an age that seems fate-forged to challenge the very concept? Humanz does this and more.
The first song, Ascension, sonically hydroplanes. Vince Staples raps over a thin and metrically relentless track that captures something of this tensile moment, when our days and nights seem to be wound together in an undifferentiated double helix of the personal and political, of parties and protests, especially in a chorus that’s uncannily resonant: 'The sky's falling baby / Drop that ass 'fore it crash.' It’s all about making danceable music in the face of extinction (or perhaps genocide) – and that doing so might be something more than a gesture of disconnect, self-absorption, or despair. There is a party at the heart of this effort, and one that reaches down to the word’s roots: the Latin partire, meaning "to share."
Andromeda and Strobelite are unimpeachably good dance songs, and others like Saturnz Barz and Halfway to the Halfway House combine elements of end-of-the-world film scores, synth odysseys, rave tunes, and straight up gospel. At the beginning of Out of Body, late in the album, Kilo Kish acts as a sort of spiritual guide/yoga instructor who reminds the listeners to 'Please leave all your belongings at the door,' before calmly leading us into an exercise in democracy-as-dance, as if a looser version of the Macarena might save us all.
This is intelligent party music, but it’s also headphone listening. Production is manic and plays at an attention deficit (though really these songs are crafted with a mandala-concentration, rich in samples, styles, and sonic layering).
Crucially, though, the album turns a critical attention to the notion of celebration – specifically, what we celebrate. At the centre of the album is an arresting poem from the sui generis Benjamin Clementine, Hallelujah Money, which posits material prosperity as salvation and love as 'the root of all evil'. Of course Albarn and Clementine aren’t suggesting that this is true, but neither is the song entirely ironic. There’s something genuine and even beautiful in the chorus hymns about money and chemtrails. This ambivalence comes across in the syntax of 2-D’s chorus: 'How will we know? / When the morning comes / We are still human / How will we know? / How will we dream? / How will we love? / How will we know?,' lines that vacillate between question and statement.
In a twist that’s baffling and a little hilarious, next up is We Got the Power, an unequivocal anthemic song about the ability to love, featuring chorus vocals from Damon Albarn and Noel Gallagher, who a few years ago repented of his infamous wish that Albarn and Blur bandmate Alex James “catch AIDS and die”. Features, by the way, are strong and brilliantly curated, as we’ve come to expect from Gorillaz albums. Danny Brown is a fantastic addition, and his nasal, nearly self-parodying delivery is an hilarious and delightful contrast to Kelela’s safe and crystalline choruses on Submission. The venerated civil rights singer Mavis Staples feels right at home (though regrettably buried just a bit too deeply in the mix), and Clementine, Staples, Peven Everett, and Jehnny Beth are also standouts.
As with any party, there are dull spots, moments of disconnect. The parvenu Shanghai alt-Ragnarok vibe doesn’t always work. Momentz is as tuneless as it is relentless. Sex Murder Party, likewise, is an uninteresting track. But, as with any party, pockets of calm are all the more intimate and affecting for the atmosphere that surrounds them. Some of the least radio-friendly tracks (and is that even a standard anymore?) are the richest: look at Busted and Blue or Ticker Tape, both meditative respites from the relentless pulse of the Humanz party.
On the whole these challenges that test our willingness to listen deeply (and repeatedly) pay off, both for their rich composition and for the provoking conversation into which the album draws the listener. This album doesn’t make statements (with a few exceptions – like the sample from Steve Martin's Wild and Crazy Guy album, which expresses something that today sounds unbearably cliched – you just have to take this in its original context). Instead, Humanz voices anxieties, ideas, instructions, and questions both familiar and unfamiliar to the global citizen of 2017. All invite responses.
The opening track asks us to disconnect from the outside world to join a potentially enriching ritual experience – a wild and intoxicating party, basically. And while the final track, Circle of Friendz, doesn’t say much, it does suggest that this ritual might effect lasting change – that even after the party, as we face the less appealing job of cleaning up, we might still remain in the same unbroken circle. A circle like this can start small and grow outward, perhaps infinitely (though Liam Gallagher, for the moment, remains on the outside).
We’ll turn our robots on again and gradually shrug back into our postures of suspicion and indifference and rejection, even within our circles and toward those who remain outside. But we have a renewed faith in partying – which is to say sharing – as legitimate political action, the right way to be in the world with other people; to be human(z). There will be work to do, yes, and failures – but there will also always be another party to plan, and it turns out that’s a more important task than we realised. Humanz, then, is what we need right now: an interruption, a challenge, an unfamiliar encounter, a good party – a message of hope that doesn’t seem naive.
Listen to: Busted and Blue, Andromeda
Buy Gorillaz - Humanz on Double LP/CD from Norman Records