Do you realize how fucking great a Gorillaz greatest hits record would be? The thing would be practically unstoppable: "Clint Eastwood," "DARE," "Feel Good Inc," "Dirty Harry," "Slow Country," "Tomorrow Comes Today," "19-2000," among about a dozen others. Gorillaz has always been more of a great singles band than album-oriented outfit. That being said, Plastic Beach is their most consistent album that will, nonetheless, add quite a few more highlights to this imagined greatest hits package.
Each Gorillaz album has a dual highlight: the funky go-getter dressed in flashy t-shirt and neon kicks and the sad-sack downer wearing yesterday's pajamas. On their self-titled debut, this couple was "Clint Eastwood" and "Slow Country," respectively. The pair is readily identifiable on Plastic Beach: "Superfast Jellyfish" is the album's best rave-up, while the exquisite "Rhinestone Cowboys" plays to the surprising strength of Albarn's deadpan 2-D act.
As a whole the album balances these exuberant highs and the slouching lows. After a surprisingly slow start (two introductions to the album plus a prelude to the third song!), the album takes off with "White Flag" when MCs Kano and Bashy trade rhymes over a funky flute driven beat provided by the Lebanese National Orchestra for Oriental Arabic Music. The one-two punch of "Stylo" and "Superfast Jellyfish" employ surprising guests (Bobby Womack, De La Soul, Gruff Rhys) to great effect. On the softer side, Little Dragon gives Albarn a hand with "Empire Ants" and "To Binge" to create a pair of watery dreams. Later, Lou Reed lends his trademark talk-singing to the terrific "Some Kind of Nature," a song that sounds more upbeat than the lyrics suggest. Albarn assumes solo control over "On Melancholy Hill" and "Broken," the former of which is one of the strongest tracks on the album. Late on Plastic Beach, Bobby Womack returns for the forlorn "Cloud of Unknowing." The song finds him standing on the beach at night, staring at the lonely satellites swinging in their orbits.
While the album is a near perfect 50/50 split between the upbeat and the ponderous numbers, the sequencing is a bit off. The band has stacked the deck in favor of the first half of the album; the second half lags a bit due to the number of soggy down-tempo songs. Taken on their own, however, some of these moments (particularly "Cloud of Unknowing" and "To Binge") reward patient listeners.
Thematically, the album concerns the degeneration of the environment. For Gorillaz, though, the ruthless exploitation of our planet isn't just an inconvenient truth; it's a terrific metaphor for postmodern artistry. The way that far-flung detritus ends up on a beach in the middle of the ocean is evidence of chaos theory's cruel logic. The metaphor suggests that culture is really just an ocean of unmoored trash, washing up on far shores, waiting to be reused and recycled. And from the beginning, hasn't this been Gorillaz's modus operandi?