It was time for Gorillaz to return to a healthy balance. Although the brainchild of Blur’s Damon Albarn and visual artist Jamie Hewlett has remained glued to pretty much the same formula for over two decades, they’ve been toying with its extremes in recent years – emulating a solo album on 2018’s guest-light The Now Now, then leaning into its playlist-friendly qualities with 2020’s overstuffed Song Machine: Season One: Strange Timez. The new album, Cracker Island, even apparently began as a continuation of that project before being restructured as a conventional album, one that might strike just the right chord for fans of the band’s earlier, more streamlined run of releases. If that means recycling the thematic concerns and broad-strokes dystopianism of classics like Plastic Beach, it’s a risk this world-renowned gang of cartoon characters is willing to take.
For the most part, it works to their benefit. If there’s a strange cloud hovering over Cracker Island, it’s got little to do with the album’s concept – we’re told the group has relocated to Silverlake, California, where they’ve discovered “the one truth to fix the world is to invite fans to join ‘The Last Cult’.” It’s how this world, with all its new problems, appears seemingly unchanged, and how content Albarn and company seem to respond by sticking to their guns. The result is an album where nearly every choice feels both calculated and effortless, that’s wary of falling into the trap of nostalgia but isn’t quite energized to move the needle, either. They avoid making it feel like a retread of old ground mostly by tightening the songs’ structure – you can hear it in a song like ‘Oil’, which slightly quickens the heartbeat of a conventional Gorillaz ballad.
Left with the task of livening things up are Cracker Island‘s guests, who are often cleverly employed. ‘Oil’ is elevated by an appearance from Stevie Nicks, whose signature rasp grounds a song that has its eye to the cosmos. The truth on cracker island, they say on the title track, is “AutoTuned,” and the hope Gorillaz offer can feel that way too – but when the two voices end the song by declaring that “Individual actions change the world/ Fill them up with love,” the invitation feels genuine and moving, not part of some narrative ploy. Even when noteworthy guests don’t really take center stage, their talents aren’t underutilized: Thundercat and Beck are there to polish the most vibrant and downcast songs on the album – ‘Cracker Island’ and the closer ‘Possession Island’, respectively – but their contributions add a soulful, human touch that is sorely lacking elsewhere. But it’s Adeleye Omotayo’s ethereal performance that renders ‘Silent Running’ one of the album’s biggest highlights, countering the song’s jaded, melancholy fantasies by making them feel less familiar and cartoonish.
Still, Cracker Island seems to find solace not so much in its message of unity but the world-weary pleasantness that pervades it. This is nothing new for Gorillaz. Not much on the album is – except for ‘Tormenta’, a collaboration with Bad Bunny that’s so refreshing and necessary it almost feels obvious (and in a more thrilling way than Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker and Bootie Brown trading verses on ‘New Gold’). Albarn’s palpable fascination with the prospect animates the song as much as Bad Bunny’s typically engaging performance, the kind of excitement that’s then brought to ‘Skinny Ape’, an electrifying jolt of energy that’s more reliant on Gorillaz’s own brand. Clearly, the group can excel in both modes. As they embark on their search for the one truth, a press release informs us what the characters have been up to, and “2D is busy being 2D.” Though this isn’t framed like another 2D solo album, it solidifies the impression that, as modern society continues to decay, Gorillaz will be busy being Gorillaz. When they do it right, that can only be a blessing.