God this album is bad. Every year there’s bound to be one massive disappointment from a critically revered artist, and thus far this year Damon Albarn’s beloved Gorillaz project is winning (losing?) that race by a landslide. The first Gorillaz album since 2010’s solid Plastic Beach, Humanz arrives two years after Albarn reunited Blur for The Magic Whip, a so-so album that sounds exactly like you’d expect Blur to sound 15 years after their heyday, and three years since his sad, grey, lonely and boring solo album, Everyday Robots. And it’s a mess in all the worst ways possible. It’s dense in songs, features and ideas but next to none of them succeed. It’s way too long, a 20 track, 48 minute slog that feels much longer. There are six needless, corny interludes. The vocal features are all over the place; verses from solid performers sound completely out of place on the instrumentals Albarn has built for them, and others are just awful regardless of what they’re rapping / singing over. There is no trace of personality or presence from the imaginary band that the project takes its name for; rather, Humanz sounds like a collection of unsuccessful demos that should have been titled “Damon Albarn writes subpar, half-baked songs for people he thinks are cool and wants to work with.”
Humanz, like other Gorillaz releases, is a pseudo concept album about the slow, deliberate destruction of humanity at the hands of greed, warfare, deceit, inept government and late stage market capitalism. And for the most part, the featured vocalists adhere to the theme in their lyrical content. The album also has a cohesive production aesthetic; dark, heavy, bassy tracks with little in the way of colorful synthesizers or guitars. And those are the only compliments I can give Humanz. It’s sort of remarkable that Damon Albarn wrote hits like “Clint Eastwood” and “Feel Good Inc.“, but couldn’t manage to put together one catchy song anyone would remember five minutes after it’s ended. It’s perhaps even more remarkable that he wrote beautiful, melancholy ballads like “El Manana“, yet not a single song here pulls at any heartstring or impresses with synthetic production. The instrumentals are incredibly boring, repetitive and lack imagination completely. Every track is just a 4/4 pounding bass rhythm with a few low, ominous synths, a rap verse or speak-singing passage followed by a ‘hook’ or ‘chorus’ that sounds almost exactly like the rest of the track, like the rest of the whole album, except with some sad, faux-tragic female vocalist or Albarn’s own voice singing banal, nondescript lyrics about how much the world sucks.
The proper opener is Vince Staples on “Ascension”, probably the best song here (Vince Staples can’t really deliver a bad verse), but the production fails to impress, an uptempo, vaguely dark, vaguely electronic haberdashery featuring a canned gospel chorus sample chanting “higher”. Things only get worse after that. “Strobelite” is the worst combination of Albarn’s dancey, techno impulses and inoffensive 80s disco pastiche. “Momentz” is practically unlistenable, not because De La Soul isn’t spitting as fast as he can, but because the underlying bass pounding out every quarter note sounds fucking awful, the chanted “Momentz!” vocal sample spliced in every 12 seconds or so sounds fucking awful, and the shrieking, wailing “Plastic on the ceiling!” bridge sounds fucking awful. All the interludes are heavy-handed and completely unnecessary, such as “The Non-Conformist Oath”, where the ‘irony’ of a crowd repeating in unison “I promise not to repeat what other people say!” makes 50 Cent’s fellatio reference on “Candy Shop” appear subtle in comparison.
No song is pretty. No vocal take is especially memorable or enjoyable. Danny Brown probably has the best verse here (another rapper who rarely fails to be exciting) but the droning techno R&B number he’s paired on compliments his vocal style like salad dressing compliments ice cream. There’s a track called “Sex Murder Party” that’s as bad as a song called “Sex Murder Party” could have been (yes, the chorus whispers “Sex murder party”), but far more boring – nothing fucking happens on this song at all! The record stumbles and face-plants out the door with the penultimate “Hallelujah Money”, which features a bizarre baritone vocal from Benjamin Clementine reciting revolutionary lyrical content expressing the concept that money is the root of all evil (Gasp!). But the closer is miles worse; an upbeat, positive song that sounds like it was Albarn’s attempt to write for Sesame Street (“We got the power to be loving each other no matter what happens! We got hte power to do that!”) before Savages’ Jehnny Beth (yes, you read that right) shows up with an incredibly awkward and uncomfortable, nearly campy vocal take that makes me want to kill myself.
And through it all, where the hell are the Gorillaz? The fictional band is nowhere to be found, no guitar lines from Noodle, no acoustic bass lines from Murdoch, minimal live drumming from Russel and only occasional vocal takes from 2-D (aka Albarn himself). Albarn stated in an interview that he has 40 more Gorillaz songs that didn’t make the album (there are also six ‘deluxe edition’ songs you can get on iTunes or something). If these were the 14 best songs he could put together, I can’t even begin to imagine the steaming pile of shit that are those other 40.
Score: 2 / 13