Album Review: Gorillaz – Song Machine

By RJ Martin, Contributor

[Parlophone/Warner; 2020]

Rating: 8.5/10

Key tracks: “The Valley of the Pagans”, “Pac-Man”, “Momentary Bliss”

Gorillaz returns with what is perhaps their most ambitious project to date, Song Machine. Instead of a traditional album release format, the album is essentially a collection of singles, as each song is accompanied by an “episode,” lyric video or both on YouTube. 

This innovative take on the album release process is characteristic of Gorillaz yet still feels like an organic and holistic album experience. This is greatly owed to the fact that, despite the single-oriented releases, the record as a whole is still cohesive, featuring some of the best and most unique material the group has dropped in a long time. The project is entertaining, innovative and joyously good virtually all the way through. 

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The record starts with the topical track “Strange Timez” which, unlike the majority of the material, was recorded during the pandemic and reflects those themes. The track is backed by the legendary Robert Smith of The Cure, whose influences are delightfully apparent throughout the rest of the album. On one hand, the song is moody and sets those post-punk-esque tones; however, it is probably one of the most skippable tunes on the album, unless you happen to be dropping the needle straight to the vinyl during your listen. It’s not bad, but in the context of the whole album, it feels like an overstated intro that goes on for a little longer than needed. 

Following is “The Valley of The Pagans”. It features an energetic Beck indulging in a hedonistic satire with 2D that is very effectively communicated through the lyrics. It’s lively, unique and absolutely quintessential of the Gorillaz sound. After hearing Humanz and The Now Now, it is utterly refreshing to hear the group doing something that sounds not only unique, but also like the Gorillaz who we all know and love. 

“The Lost Chord” is one of the album’s first instances of the vaporwave and ’80s synthwave sounds present on the record. The track isn’t quite as exciting as other parts of the album, halting the momentum just a bit, but it is still ethereal and features wonderful instrumentation that makes it sound like it’s straight off Plastic Beach. Right on its heels is “Pac-Man”, one of the best tracks on the record by far. It is absolutely a Gorillaz song in all the best ways. From the infectiously catchy beat building momentum to Schoolboy Q’s awesome verse to the lyrics describing Schoolboy and 2D being trapped within a video game, it is an incredible adventure. 

“Chalk Tablet Towers” is packed with lulled and woozy instrumentals while 2D and St. Vincent sing about indulging in various drugs and illicit substances. It transitions into the much-awaited “The Pink Phantom”, which features none other than Elton John and 6LACK, an unlikely pairing that works out well. It opens with 2D’s somber vocals lamenting about broken relationships, with 6LACK’s vocals woven in between. Elton John comes builds on the lonely themes in his verse, crooning about trying “to get to Atlanta, on a peach blossom highway.” 

Perhaps the hardest the album leans into the ’80s synthwave sound, “Aries” is a nostalgic romp that makes even someone born a decade late feel wistful and misty-eyed. Conversely, “Friday 13th” and “Dead Butterflies” are an interesting point in the record and perhaps the most typical “bangers” that you’ll hear on any Gorillaz album. They closely adhere to contemporary trap beats and vibes, but their artist features––from Octavian and Roxani Arias––make them more unique listens. However, “Dead Butterflies” utilizes the formula, with its looping piano, overpowering bass and snare, to a fault. It sounds like an amateur SoundCloud beat that undesirably deviates from Gorillaz’s typical sound. 

The record closes with “Desole” and “Momentary Bliss”, sending it off in an awesome fashion. “Desole” sounds like it could be straight off Demon Days, and “Momentary Bliss” is a certified banger that contains infectious hooks from slowthai and guitar from Slaves. The beat combined with the forward guitars and slowthai’s high energy is delightfully punk rock. 

Gorillaz returned stronger than ever in 2020, despite a global pandemic and lukewarm reactions to their hiatus-ending efforts of the past few years. Song Machine offers an incredible experience and a hopeful insight to a new era of the group. 

Listen here:

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