Key Tracks- Saturnz Barz, Busted and Blue, Let Me Out
They can’t make a better album than Demon Days.
It’s not fair to expect every new Gorillaz project to top their 2005 masterpiece, but that sentence is in my head whenever I listen to them.
Demon Days was a nearly perfect album, with every song fitting neatly into its concept. The sequencing is flawless, with every song flowing into the next. I never advise listening to single songs from the album; playing the entire thing in order is the only way.
So, Humanz is not as good as Demon Days. But they are closer than they have been since 2005.
Humanz is not a concept album, but the musicians featured were given a theme to follow. Damon Albarn has described it as a “dark fantasy”, instructing the guest artists to respond to a major event that changes the world for the worse.
While the world isn’t a post-apocalyptic wasteland as Humanz forsees, the world did change for the worse after the 2016 presidential election. This album is a response to that, with some songs leaning harder into it than the others.
The world is still getting much, much worse every day. But instead of dwelling on it we’ll listen to this album that vaguely hints at that.
Any references to Tr**p or Ob**a are bleeped out, but there is a clear political slant to some of these tracks.
The album kicks off with Vince Staples on “Ascension”.
I’m finna turn Ob**a to my partner ‘fore he dash
Pull up to the pad, wipe my ass with the flag
I’m just playing, baby, this the land of the free
Where you can get a Glock and a gram for the cheap
Where you can live your dreams long as you don’t look like me
Be a puppet on a string, hanging from a fucking tree
“Ascension” sounds more like a Vince Staples song featuring 2D, as the latter only gets a brief unrelated verse in the middle. This happens a lot on Humanz. This is not Gorillaz featuring some of their friends. Most of the album are other artists with 2D only singing in limited capacity.
“Saturnz Bars” featuring Popcaan is the first real BANGER on Humanz, and their strongest single since Stylo. The low growling bass fits Popcaan’s disaffected delivery perfectly, and the bridge where he and 2D duet is sublime. An early highlight of the album.
Submission with Kelela and Danny Brown is also worth saving, with Brown’s cartoonish voice fitting the Gorillaz style perfectly.
The momentum from this song is immediately killed by “Charger”. It’s one of the few songs led by 2D so far, but the repetitive instrumental and barely-there cameo from Grace Jones makes it feel like a B-side.
Fortunately, the next two tracks are excellent. 2D leads “Andromeda” and “Busted and Blue”, two ballads that both flow together while contrasting in tone. “Busted and Blue” is already one of the best Gorillaz songs, a sparse tune where 2D contemplates his existence as a virtual being.
It’s one of the few Gorillaz songs that looks at the connection between this virtual band and the real world. I refer to Damon Albarn’s vocals as “2D” because he is not performing as himself. He’s performing as this cartoon that has its own life and story outside of himself. “Busted and Blue” gives a look at that performance, and it is an essential song because of this.
The next highlight is “Let Me Out” featuring Pusha-T and Mavis Staples. Pusha-T is confident as always, but communicates his anxiety and fears about living under a system that doesn’t care if his family lives or dies.
So together we mourn, I’m praying for my neighbors
They say the devil’s at work and Tr**p is calling favors
Tell me there’s a chance for me to make it off the streets
Tell me that I won’t die at the hands of the police
Promise me I won’t outlive my nephew and my niece
This song is followed by an interlude, two skippable songs, and another interlude. This album is 26 tracks long, but I went in-depth on the important ones because there are many songs that only exist to fill time.
“Hallelujah Money” featuring Benjamin Clementine picks up where “Let Me Out” left off. It’s partly a cynical look at how people worship consumerism, and partly a critique on the political landscape.
Specifically, how idiotic it is to build walls around a country.
“We Got The Power” closes the album on an upbeat, hopeful note but can be a little grating because of how many voices and instruments are layered together. A good pick-me-up song if it comes on the shuffle, but too abrupt to end an album.
But the album doesn’t actually end there. An interlude caps off the main album and leads into 5 bonus songs.
“The Apprentice” is a smooth R&B song where 2D takes the backseat to a number of guest artists. Not a superb song, but worth listening to. It should have replaced some of the skippable songs on the main album.
“Out of Body” is a fun pop song that seems to be about a bad drug trip or other unpleasant out-of-body experience. It’s reminiscent of the first Gorillaz album and the weird songs like “Man Research (Clapper)” on there.
“Ticker Tape” meanders until Carly Simon appears halfway through the song with an anti-pollution message. The musical soundscape shifts around her, and her duet with 2D is one of the album’s highlights.
After finishing all 26 tracks, I counted up what ones I’d come back to. I like 12 of them enough to listen to again. I don’t think Humanz is a poor album, because those 12 tracks are some of the best Gorillaz songs yet. As they do with every album, Gorillaz have drastically changed their sound and the band’s mission.
Gorillaz have gone from a band that occasionally features other artists to Damon Albarn featuring his favourite artists in a collective. Most of the time, it works out. Then, there are songs like “Busted and Blue” that left me wanting to heard 2D singing more and that doesn’t happen.
Expecting something to top Demon Days was a mistake on my part; they probably haven’t thought about that album in years. They are close, but could have gotten even closer. A version of Humanz that has less songs is a stronger album than what is presented here.
The version of Humanz I carry on my Zune are just those 12 tracks, and I don’t feel like I’m missing out by not having the rest.
It may not be a new Demon Days, but “Saturnz Barz” is the best Gorillaz song since “Stylo”. That’s good enough for me.