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The Gorillaz Want You to Dance on the Edge of Oblivion

On ‘Humanz,’ bandleader Damon Albarn wonders: What would you do if the worst were to happen?

(Getty Images/AP Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/AP Images/Ringer illustration)

In 2012, a would-be species-threatening asteroid missed Earth, proving the Mayan calendar wrong for the (estimated) millionth time. Earl Sweatshirt tweeted this, and I think about it a lot.

Four years later, and two years into crafting Humanz — Gorillaz’s fourth proper studio album, released Friday — bandleader Damon Albarn asked Pusha T to imagine what he’d be doing, were a different and more likely kind of “the worst” to happen. Speaking to Zane Lowe on Apple’s Beats 1 radio, the rapper intimated that he was told to approach the album “like if Trump were to win.”

Albarn asked each of his many guests — from Mavis Staples to Vince Staples (a sometime Sweatshirt collaborator; it’s always gold) — to tackle their respective features the same way. In an interview with Billboard, he later revealed that he’d edited every reference to no. 45 out of the final product, but what remains intact is the animated pop band’s gloomy ethos: an indictment of public indifference, the government, the economy, people who don’t separate out their recyclables. That’s not to say Albarn’s general displeasure with the current state of affairs didn’t have a clear locus. On the eve of the inauguration, and after six years of silence, Gorillaz rolled out “Hallelujah Money.” The song features British poet Benjamin Clementine, but it might be more accurate to say Clementine haunts it. He offers a dour meditation on where we are, and where we might be headed. In the accompanying music video, jarring footage of KKK rallies and eerily grainy children’s cartoons are projected onto the walls of a gold-plated elevator in Trump Tower.

But despite the pomp surrounding this most recent release — a Red Bull–sponsored festival, a 30-minute “live” Q&A — Gorillaz were understood as something of a joke at first. A down-the-nose laugh shared between the once–Blur frontman Albarn and Tank Girl illustrator Jamie Hewlett, at the expense of cynical, assembly-line pop music. The two created an animated four-piece outfit — 2-D, Noodle, Russel, and Murdoc — and marketed them with needlessly convoluted backstories, with beleaguered eyes and dreary dispositions to match. Giving the self-titled debut half a bar for the Village Voice in 2001, music critic Christina Rees wrote that, “You’d have to judge the quality of Gorillaz on a sliding scale of how seriously you take them.”

Well, in 2001, I was 10 years old, stealing alone time with MTV when my parents weren’t in the house to tell me to read a book. Because my understanding of the world was still very much shaped in equal parts by art and reality, an animated band called “Gorillaz” sighing their way through a song about having “sunshine in a bag” while fighting literal gorillas was something I needed to know more about. I was unburdened by any knowledge of Blur whatsoever, aside from that one song on FIFA 98 I didn’t quite know the words to.

But after Gorillaz’s debut, Albarn put less emphasis on constructing the world in which his fictional band lived, and more on refracting the crumbling “real” world back onto itself. To wit, Hewlett’s animated near-reality always felt like something of a harbinger. In Gorillaz music videos, the sky is purpled over with noctilucent night clouds, or saddled with that unplaceable orange hue — the kind that could portend either a tornado, or a sunset. The shift bespoke a dispiriting string of newsworthy events, which we couldn’t yet call history, as we weren’t sure how bad they would prove themselves to be.

The 2005 follow-up Demon Days was born into a world in which George W. Bush had declared a mission “accomplished” nearly a decade and countless casualties before it actually was. Bursting out of the rigid framework of guitar-based rock, Albarn picked over dystopian sci-fi synths and zombie-flick scores — and MF Doom — to create a creepy masterpiece, appropriately apprehensive and despondent for the times, and slightly less charming than its predecessor. The world economy was swaying, but hadn’t fully fallen into a recession; Facebook had just become available to non-college students; and Jack Dorsey was somewhere, coming up with Twitter. We were more connected than ever before, and everything was happening, so much, all of the time. And, as a time capsule buried just as everything seemed to begin circling the drain, it holds up beautifully, a full 12 years later.

Even so, Albarn set out to capture another distinct moment in time with Humanz, and had a very clear picture in mind. In an interview with Stereogum, 2-D’s corporeal counterpart mused about “a night when everything that you believed in was turned on its head.”

“[Humanz] is a journey through that night, post-whatever that was,” Albarn explained. “That news. When you go out that night, how do you feel? This record was anticipating that night but trying to make a party out of it.”

And a party it is, indeed. One happening on the edge of sanity.

I’ve been to a party like this once, I think. In Berlin, just as the Eurozone crisis was budding, when I was abroad but not really studying. It was in an abandoned, labyrinthine power plant, full of smoke machines and strobe lights and chain-link fences and supply elevators and false bottoms. But as Albarn’s bombastic reunion with De La Soul on “Momentz,” from the new album, suggests, being lost — literally, or in memories, or in the inscrutable now — was fine. Each room blared some different competing sound, and it was too loud to think, which wasn’t exactly a bad thing. The rapture of just dancing, to music you were too in the bag to fully understand, and for however long, was what you were there for. What does anything matter anyway, I thought, three drinks too philosophical.

And then the sun came up.

Humanz boasts a long list of guests packing the house from wall to wall and floor to ceiling, at times crowding out the host. On the top floor, Kelela and Danny Brown go back and forth on “Submission,” a buoyant jam about being beset on all sides with more than you could possibly handle. On the roof, D.R.A.M. stargazes on a gloriously light pop record called “Andromeda.” Grace Jones is there too, buried beneath dirty rock vamps and blippy reverb on “Charger.” Down on the street, Vince Staples challenges any and all takers to a foot race.

Each of the lead singles serves to build the idea of the “Spirit House,” rocking and booming with possibility. But inside, someone keeps futzing with the playlist. Humanz employs all kinds of sounds from different corners of the soundscape — there’s Nu disco, krautrock, hip-hop, noise pop, and listless dream pop like on “Busted and Blue,” the only song on which Albarn appears by his lonesome. Ultimately, and somewhat more so than Demon Days or Plastic Beach, Humanz feels a little overfull with ideas, and Albarn occasionally struggles with where exactly to put them. It feels less an album than a collection of tracks cobbled around interludes that don’t last more than 20 seconds, and that aren’t the easiest things to squeeze meaning out of. But, as ever with Gorillaz, everything is so kitschy that you have to entertain the possibility that any implacable contradiction you find might have been the point after all. One of those interludes is a statement of nonconformity, made as an oath, and repeated by a crowd of people, literally conforming.

If Humanz was made for a party at the end of the world, why then shouldn’t the album itself be somewhat fraught? A good party — especially one held in spite of something — is many things, but rarely, if ever, is it orderly. And like any other function — rave, or “bash” if you’re like that — we can settle on how good it actually was tomorrow. If tomorrow ever comes.

An earlier version of this story misstated the name of a Gorillaz member. She is Noodle, not Noodlz.