Favorite Track: "The Valley of the Pagans (feat. Beck)
Least Favorite Track: "Friday 13th (feat. Octavian)"
I have never loved Gorillaz in the way many people seem to. The idea of a virtual band that attempts to push the boundaries of rock, pop, and hip-hop simultaneously is quite the interesting concept, but their music has never particularly stuck with me. Occasionally coming back to select hits like “Feel Good Inc.” or “Clint Eastwood”, I appreciated the songs for what they were musically and never really looked too much further into the funky public image of the band. After listening to their latest release Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez however, I began to really regret not looking into this band more in the past. This record is filled to the brim with fun pop tunes and funky barn-burners that are somewhat reminiscent of records like Plastic Beach and Demon Days, and it has intrigued me to go back and examine their previous discography more closely.
If you ask any die-hard Gorillaz fan, they will tell you that the band has been in something of a slump ever since 2017’s Humanz. With the over bloated tracklist and heavy reliance on features, Humanz came out not feeling all that cohesive or interesting, instead feeling like a bunch of singles that really had nothing to do with each other. 2018’s The Now Now just sounded like wallpaper, and I walked away from it not really knowing exactly what I had listened to. With Song Machine though, it seems like Gorillaz have taken the “singles-only” flow of Humanz and turned it on its head, instead embracing the gimmick by releasing this record in an episodic fashion month to month. This not only bred increasing amounts of anticipation for the album every time a new track was released, but it allowed the record to explore different styles and still have a narrative to make the pick-and-choose facet of the album feel cohesive.
If Song Machine is any indicator of the character of Gorillaz as a band, it is that they are multi-faceted to the core. Their genre-bending style of hip-hop and rock on their self-titled debut solidified them as figures to watch for experimentation in popular music. This is very much replicated on Song Machine, but instead of focusing on hip-hop and rock, the record is pop-centric to the max. Tracks like “Strange Timez (feat. Robert Smith)” and “Chalk Tablet Towers (feat. St. Vincent)” are fantastically groovy pop tracks that are infectious beyond belief. The anthemic chorus chants of Gorillaz singer 2-D harmonized with St. Vincent on the latter are larger than life, and they feel like giving in to the carefree nature of a raging party. This is heavily complimented by the simple lyricism about love and drugs and the synths that mirror these larger-than-life vocal chants. “Pac-Man (feat. ScHoolboy Q)” is another huge highlight in the tracklist, a cut that is groovy and tinged with video game-esque synths and sound effects that are immensely satisfying when paired with 2-D’s beautifully calm vocal delivery on the track. ScHoolboy Q also delivers a fantastic verse on the back half dissecting police violence and the feeling of being stuck in place that many people of color experience. “The Valley of the Pagans (feat. Beck)” is far and away my favorite track on the record. The bassline on this cut is mind-blowingly groovy and the vocals from both 2-D and Beck here are so masterful in their presence. The increasing noise leading into the choruses is also a fantastic touch that has made me come back to this song more times than I can count since the release of this record less than 2 days ago.
While Song Machine never truly falters, there are a few tracks that feel somewhat underwhelming. “Friday 13th (feat. Octavian)” is probably my least favorite here, solely because Octavian delivers a wildly mediocre vocal performance and 2-D doesn’t show up here at all. “The Pink Phantom (feat. Elton John and 6LACK)” is a pretty lovely slow burner, but I feel as though 6LACK’s autotuned vocal performance doesn’t mix all that well with the soulful singing from 2-D and Elton here. “Désolé (feat. Fatoumata Diawara)” sports a lackluster and repetitive instrumental that runs a little long, and on the record it is credited as an “extended version” which ends up making it feel like even more of a dud compared to the single version that was about 90 seconds shorter. Finally, there are a few points in the record where some of the songs don’t flow together all that well. The aesthetic of being a “singles record” actually works out quite well, but the tracklist could have been rearranged in a more deliberate way that might have flowed a bit better. The transition from the upbeat, poppy, and synthy sounds of “Chalk Tablet Towers” directly into the stripped-back piano balladry of “The Pink Phantom” just leaves me feeling a little bit awkward, and this principle definitely shows up on the record more than once.
Ultimately, I think the “singles only” aesthetic of Song Machine works in its favor much more frequently than not. It allows Gorillaz, a band already known for their multi-genre prowess, to showcase that talent on a larger scale without feeling gimmicky or awkward. In most instances I actually have to applaud them quite heavily for being able to fit a song like “Aries (feat. Peter Hook and Georgia)” on the same tracklist as “Dead Butterflies (feat. Kano and Roxani Arias)”. These two tracks, the first being a New Order style barn-burner and the second being a clear-cut trap song, manage to work flawlessly together on the same record, and I truly believe that is something to marvel at. Gorillaz have proven their music to be the cream of the crop in not just one genre, but the craft of music itself on Song Machine, mixing every genre you can think of into one beautifully palatable work of art.