The most successful moments in Gorillaz’ enviable five-studio-album career have always come as eclectic pairings with the greats of the music world.
Such collaborations have included Bobby Womack’s back-from-the-R&B-graveyard performance on “Stylo,” Ibrahim Ferrer’s Cuban-crooning on “Latin Simone,” the juxtaposition of Roots Manuva and Martina Topley-Bird on “All Alone,” and the effervescent presence that is De La Soul on “Feel Good Inc.,” “Superfast Jellyfish” and “Momentz.”
So when the band recently told me that the biggest difference on its new album, “The Now Now,” was that it would be “almost all 2-D” (Damon Albarn’s character in the virtual group), warning bells went off.
Albarn has proved his capacity as a musician with almost all the hats he’s worn: frontman of Blur, mythical co-creator of Gorillaz and as part of supergroup The Good, The Bad and The Queen. But how would the new album fare with a more solo approach?
That question was answered when Gorillaz premiered the album on June 22 live at Zepp DiverCity in Tokyo.
As expected, the show was technically and visually brilliant. Jamie Hewlett, Gorillaz’ artistic mastermind, seems to surpass himself with each show and it was nice to see a reversion to the more two-dimensional, hand-drawn graphics of the group’s early days.
The head of the album — all 11 tracks were played in order — was also excellent; diverse and energetic. The opener, a summer-ready single titled “Humility,” features jazz guitarist George Benson and was accompanied by a Hewlett-directed video with a cameo from Jack Black (I’m still waiting for the day he teams up with De La Soul) that has already racked up more than 30 million views on YouTube.
“Tranz” was a raucous dance track that had the crowd off its feet and baying for more. It was quickly followed by “Hollywood,” the album’s catchiest and most topical song featuring a sensational Jamie Principle and a verse by the ever-slick Snoop Dogg, who was projected on screen in absentia as he rapped.
But from then on — with the collaborations out of the way and Albarn/2-D left to his own devices — the album fell flat and, despite all the power-stance thrusting of the band, the energy never really recovered.
Not that the album is a bad one. There are some excellent ballads, “Fire Flies” chief among them, and the the six-strong backing section wonderfully augmented Albarn’s threnodic vocals throughout. But my original assumption was proved correct: Without its extended cast of collaborators, Gorillaz suffers.
This was made all the more apparent with their first choice of encore, “On Melancholy Hill.” It was played accompanied by its music video, which tells the story of a distressed and harried Gorillaz being rescued by the collaborators featured on “Plastic Beach”: Snoop Dogg, De La Soul, Mick Jones, etc.
From here on, the evening took on a different energy. Peven Everett stole the show with his performance on “Strobelight,” De La Soul made a welcome appearance on “Feel Good Inc.” and Booty Brown brought his A-game to an electric rendition of “Dirty Harry.” The best was saved for last as the the band closed with its first single — and biggest ever boon to melodica sales — “Clint Eastwood,” featuring the two original verses by Del the Funky Homosapien (projected on screen as Del Tha Ghost Rapper).
As a band, there’s always the risk that a guest might outshine you if you bring them on board. Not Gorillaz, though, collaborations are what the group does best.