When Gorillaz formed and released their self-titled debut album over two decades ago, Damon Albarn’s cartoon clan had the distinct feel of a side project about it, a kooky and then radical attempt at modern pop music with a technological twist. Since then, the project has slowly but surely become the Blur frontman’s main concern. Now, as a collaborative tour-de-force and frequent festival headlining act, Gorillaz are releasing their eighth record.
On each album to date, Albarn, and his sidekick, illustrator and animator Jamie Hewlett, have created self-contained worlds thick with narrative and colourful imagery, realised through kaleidoscopic pop music.
Like 2010’s Plastic Beach, the foundations of Cracker Island lie in a fictional oasis. After the band relocated from their London base at Kong Studios to Silverlake Recording Studios in LA, they formed ‘The Last Cult’, a religious organisation with weirdness at its heart.
In keeping with this, the video for the new album’s title track sees the cult perform a ritual under the Hollywood sign.
To each of the collaborators, and the cartoon band themselves, Cracker Island means something different. In the band’s traditionally esoteric press statements, guitarist Noodle said that the album is “the sound of change and the chorus of the collective”, with 2D adding: ”The path to Cracker Island isn’t easy to find ’cos it’s underwater.” So far, so strange.
On the songs themselves, ‘Tired Influencer’ paints the setting as “a cracked screen world”, while Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker sees it as a happier, romantic place on ‘New Gold’: “But in the magic cove, there’s a pretty one / I wonder if she knows that we’re underwater.”
As with most cults, every collaborator drafted in works towards the same common goal, and have been hand-picked carefully and perfectly for their roles. Although there are A-listers splashed all over Cracker Island, their appearances don’t seem contingent on their star status, rather what they can bring to the songs.
Kicking off with a title track that sets the scene for our new home (a place “to grow
a made-up paradise / Where the truth was auto-tuned,” Albarn sings), Thundercat brings an undeniable, signature funk, while Stevie Nicks’ voice intertwines gorgeously with Albarn’s on the widescreen ‘Oil’.
Star quality is injected into the Bad Bunny- featuring ‘Tormenta’, and he knows it too (“Take advantage of me today / ’Cos I’m gone tomorrow,” he raps), while other impressive turns come from Beck on the delicate closer ‘Possession Island’ and Adeleye Omotayo on the 80s strut of ‘Silent Running’.
Compared to the sprawl of recent Gorillaz albums, Humanz (2017) and Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez (2020), the 10 tracks on Cracker Island are also excellently focused. Everything on the 35-minute runtime feels deliberately chosen for its common
goal of transporting you to the psychedelic world of its title. Few bands would be as adept at bringing a motley crew together to make an album as cohesive as this. The sonic wonderland of Gorillaz just continues to grow, and it’s delightful to let them whisk us away.