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Damon Albarn’s cartoon band mark their 20th anniversary with a record whose star guests – Elton John, Robert Smith and St Vincent among them – are folded into a fluent, brilliant whole

Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett’s Gorillaz project has sold tens of millions of albums, spawned No 1 singles, broken America in a way no Britpop band (including Blur) ever managed, won awards, headlined festivals, spawned its own festival – Demon Dayz – and staged vast transcontinental arena tours. All this without it ever becoming clear what Gorillaz is supposed to be. An alt-rock star’s extended sneery joke at the expense of manufactured pop? A catch-all repository for a musical polymath’s teeming multiplicity of ideas? An act of self-indulgence, or a brave, boundary-pushing experiment that sometimes works to startling effect and sometimes very publicly fails?

At various points since their 2000 debut, Gorillaz have encompassed all of those things: they have lurched from feeling like a stoned folly to a brilliantly inventive reimagining of what a pop band can be; from a postmodern gag to the source of evidently heartfelt concept albums about environmentalism and the apocalyptic tone of life in the 21st century; from being the object of Noel Gallagher’s derision to featuring Noel Gallagher as a special guest.

Watch the video for Gorillaz: The Pink Phantom

You get the feeling Damon Albarn isn’t entirely sure himself how to define Gorillaz, which makes Song Machine Season One: Strange Timez an oddly perfect way to celebrate the band’s 20th anniversary. It’s an album born out of an online project that Albarn claimed he embarked on with “absolutely no idea where [it] was going”: a monthly series of new songs, apparently written on the hoof, each featuring a new guest artist or artists and an accompanying video. Moreover, it was a project overtaken by world events. In short order, Song Machine’s videos went from footage of Albarn in the studio with Slowthai and the members of Slaves, or traversing Lake Como in a speedboat with Fatoumata Diawara, to material that had evidently had to be patched together long-distance, featuring collaborations conducted by email. One episode didn’t feature a film at all: just a still of Afrobeat drummer and long-term Albarn collaborator Tony Allen, who had died aged 79 before the track he had worked on with Skepta in March, How Far?, could be released.

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Some of the music on Song Machine was evidently made in reaction to 2020 itself: “surgical glove world, bleach-thirsty world”, Albarn sings on Strange Timez, which features Robert Smith looking sorrowfully down at the Earth, amazed it’s still spinning, while a piano scampers randomly around, a subtle nod to the Cure’s The Caterpillar amid the four-to-the-floor house beats. Some of it feels weirdly potentiated by what happened after it was recorded. The Pink Phantom patently isn’t a song about coronavirus or lockdown, but coronavirus and lockdown cast it in a strange light: the careworn voice of Elton John, 73, singing about feeling isolated and facing death – “I’ll be waiting for you on the other side”, as “the world falls silent” – set against rapper 6lack, his voice gleaming with Auto-Tuned modernity, wondering: “Were you ever really there?”

Topical or not, Song Machine Season One offers a potent résumé of what the Gorillaz project can do at its best. Its ad-hoc origins mean there is no noticeable overarching concept, but they also seem to have brought the music into focus, militating against the kind of over-expansive indulgence that marred 2017’s Humanz, or indeed the experimental noodling found on 2010’s The Fall. The songwriting is sharp, and the melodies uniformly great. Floating above an intriguing combination of jangling guitar and scattered beats, the tune of Friday 13th, featuring Octavian, sounds alternately joyous and melancholy; the scrabbly punk and stand-up drumming of the Slaves/Slowthai track Momentary Bliss falls into an unexpectedly pretty chorus.

The cover of Song Machine Season One: Strange Timez.
The cover of Song Machine Season One: Strange Timez.
Photograph: Publicity image

It’s not just that the guests demonstrate Albarn’s excellent taste in music, although they do – from St Vincent to Octavian to Georgia to Unknown Mortal Orchestra, at least in the deluxe edition tracks – it’s what he choses to do with their voices. Sometimes, it’s straightforward. Peter Hook’s style of bass playing is so unique that it automatically makes anything he plays on sound like his former band. Nevertheless, there’s a distinct aura of loving homage to New Order about the sporadic guitar clang and stuttering drum machine of Aires. Sometimes it’s at odds with the music the guest artist is known for: on Simplicity, Joan As Police Woman’s voice is thrown into an icy, chaotic, harsh electronic landscape.

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Crucially, the guest appearances never feel like the musical equivalent of those sitcom cameos where the audience immediately applauds because they recognise the star: you get the feeling the various artists are there for what they can bring to the song, rather than who they are, which means they meld into a fluent whole. For an album made in fits and starts – and without the discernible overarching themes found on Plastic Beach or Humanz – Song Machine is remarkably coherent. That’s tribute to both the diversity of the artist at its centre, and the all-encompassing, amorphous nature of Gorillaz: why would you need to define what the project is, when the musical result is this enjoyable?

• Song Machine Season One: Strange Timez by Gorillaz is released on 23 October, with a number of tracks out now.



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