Very easily their best. Sure, there’s nothing as big as “Clint Eastwood” or “Feel Good Inc.” on it, but Plastic Beach boasts an ambition that neither of Gorillaz’ previous two albums did. Firstly, this is the first Gorillaz album to be entirely self-produced, which both has its upsides and its downsides. Secondly, as seen in the music videos, Plastic Beach furthers the concept laid down by Demon Days, but it takes it one step further. Plastic Beach also provides–very loosely–an environmental commentary, as seen in some of its lyrics, see for example, “It’s a Casio on a plastic beach / It’s a Styroform deep sea landfill” or “We left the taps / Running / For a hundred years.”
One of the major downsides to Plastic Beach is that it spends way too much time peacocking with its wall of guest features. Of course, the Gorillaz project has always been about guest features, but I don’t ever recall Damon Albarn enlisting so many big names ever before. I somehow doubt that the multi-talented Albarn could not have done the guitar and bass parts of the title track instead of grabbing the two members of the Clash, or that he could not have yelled “WHERE’S NORTH FROM ‘ERE?” on “Glitter Freeze” instead of enlisting the Fall’s Mark E. Smith. Elsewhere, he could’ve done the hook on “Superfast Jellyfish” instead of enlisting Super Furry Animals’ Gruff Rhys, and I’m not exactly sure that Lou Reed was entirely necessary for “Some Kind of Nature,” though it is impressive that Albarn had pulled him out of several decades of utter mediocrity.
To further my point about pointless guest features, look no further than lead single “Stylo.” Mos Def’s name is attached to it, but his rapping–if we can even call it that–is more a stream-of-conscious hook. During the Plastic Beach live tour, Bobby Womack came to deliver his part because he is obviously much harder to replace, but some nondescript character easily stepped in the shoes of Mos Def. He’s clearly been thrown into the track title to grab attention, much in the same way Bruce Willis was pulled in for the music video. Which makes the other Mos Def feature, “Sweepstakes,” almost a necessity, but it has the most obnoxious hook on the album.
One of the reasons Plastic Beach might get written off then, is because of the lack of rapping. Despite spending the past decade immersing himself in hip-hop culture, starting as a feature on Deltron 3030, Albarn is apparently unable to produce hip-hop tracks. Bashy and Kano break the wonderful intro created by the Lebanese National Orchestra for Oriental Arabic Music on “White Flag” and the track is essentially a throwaway, or at the very least, an excuse for Albarn and co. to toss a giant white flag into the audience and demand it be waved around during live renditions of the song. Snoop Dogg phones in his parts for “Welcome to the World of the Plastic Beach,” which manages to keep its head afloat thanks to a sizable hook. Actually, the album doesn’t manage to get going until “Rhinestone Eyes,” a huge mistake on their part considering how both Gorillaz and (after a brief intro,) Demon Days took off immediately.
Still though, despite my negative criticisms against Plastic Beach, I’m still ready to call it their best. I am simply being hard on it because its flaws are so readily apparent and can so easily have been fixed. And despite what I said about Mick Jones and Paul Simonon’s inclusion, they manage to make “Plastic Beach” a formidable rock track; arpeggios waving in and out over a muscular bass. And yes, Mark E. Smith probably phoned in his parts, but “Glitter Freeze” is mostly an instrumental anyway, a catchy enough one that somehow managed to be a commercial jingle (I forget which one; if you know which, message me). Bobby Womack’s voice launches out of the atmosphere on “Stylo,” and he might as well have carried the track by himself, but it’s the little additions that separate it from “Clouds of Unknowing,” like the backing vocals that mumble “A giant fish!” after “When the mako flies…” Elsewhere, Albarn duets with Little Dragon’s Yukimi Nagano on two album highlights, “Empire Ants” and “To Binge.” The former evolves without warning from a ballad into a ridiculously catchy dance-fest in the album’s best moment.
Yet, if either “Rhinestone Eyes” or “On Melancholy Hill” demonstrate, Gorillaz does not need others, even if it’s become their calling card attribute. On “On Melancholy Hill,” fictional frontman Murdoc aptly describes it, “It’s good to have something that’s a genuine pop moment on every album. And this is one of those.” There is no rapping to distract us, and here, it’s just Damon Albarn. Obviously, the fact that it comes with the most tangible riff on the album (maybe their entire discography) doesn’t hurt. I’ll always hold that 13 was Blur’s best moment because it was their most personal. “On Melancholy Hill” manages to take the abstraction of “Rhinestone Eyes” or “Empire Ants” and marries it with the personal. “Up on melancholy hill / There’s a plastic tree” or later, “A manatee” mean nothing really; they’re just humorous idiosyncratic addition. But they’re juxtaposed with the infinitely simpler lyrics, “You can’t get what you want / But you can get me” or “Cause you are my medicine / When you’re close to me” that make “On Melancholy Hill” the most real moment in a fictional band’s discography.