Releasing music reactively isn’t anything new – it’s been a fixture of hip-hop for ages and even the pop world has started to catch up with that spontaneity since Ariana Grande switched things up with ‘Thank U, Next’. With Gorillaz’s new album ‘Song Machine Season One: Strange Timez’, Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett are aiming to introduce that free spirit to the alternative scene.
Since January, the virtual group have been releasing new songs every six-to-eight weeks, putting tracks out as they (and their accompanying animations) are finished and giving themselves space to respond to whatever they’re feeling or is happening in the world. In a press release announcing the project in January, avatar Russel said it “feeds on the unknown and runs on pure chaos” – perfect for 2020, then.
Given all that, if you’re expecting lots of thinly veiled references to our current disorder and uncertainty, you’ll be disappointed. The album’s title track might find The Cure’s Robert Smith singing, “Strange times to be alive”, but that’s the most direct nod to this year’s events as we get. Instead, there are musings on social media (‘Momentary Bliss’), love (‘The Pink Phantom’) and more.
As with all Gorillaz albums, a cast of collaborators have been called in to help on each track, varying from icons (Smith, Beck, the late Tony Allen), to up-and-comers (Slowthai, Georgia), to total unknowns. Roxania Arias, who appears on the minimal ‘Dead Butterflies’ with Kano, is impossible to find online, apparently with only this one song to her name so far.
Some of the combinations that Albarn comes up with look, on paper, like they would never work, but somehow they do. Elton John and 6lack teaming up on the melancholy drama of ‘The Pink Phantom’ is inspired, the rapper’s auto-tuned verses complementing the legend’s restrained, theatrical vocals. Other cameos don’t work out quite so well though – St Vincent appears on the twinkling indie-pop of ‘Chalk Tablet Towers’, but her voice barely stands out and it feels like a big missed opportunity. Joan As Policewoman’s feature on the lowkey ‘Simplicity’, meanwhile, flashes past, which is more than can be said for the rest of the song.
‘Strange Timez’’s best moments come when Gorillaz’s guests are allowed to take control. Octavian steers the loping dub of ‘Friday 13th’ with rasped lines, casually making violent scenes sound wistful and nostalgic. “It’s definitely going down,” he raps nonchalantly at one point. “Find a paigon on the strip, spin him round/Big man talking shit til we pin him down.”
Over Albarn’s career, he’s become known as someone always ready to spotlight other artists from around the world and this collection is no different. On ‘Desolé’, with Malian singer and frequent collaborator Fatoumata Diawara, lyrics flow in English, French and Bambara. Japanese punks CHAI team up with JPEGMAFIA on the bubble-soft ‘MLS’ and South African “future ghetto punk” creator Moonchild Sanelly makes ‘With Love To An Ex’ sparkle with attitude.
At a time when we can’t go much further than the nearest park, ‘Strange Timez’ acts like a jukebox journey hopping from country to country, culture to culture. It’s not always smooth sailing, but what’s an adventure without a few unexpected hiccups here and there?