For all the considerable goodwill engendered by Blur’s reunion last summer, it’s hard to knock Damon Albarn’s decision to leave the Britpop heroes behind in the first place. As expansive as Blur could be, there’s no way that band could’ve given a sufficient outlet to the pan-global pop that the singer has released under the Gorillaz moniker. In his three albums with the cartoon supergroup, along with his various side-projects, Albarn has established himself as one of the most consistently adventurous songwriters in the business, embracing sounds from hip hop to electro to Chinese opera.
Gorrilaz’s cartoon esthetic and extensive mythology provides Albarn and animator Jaime Hewlett with more than just a nifty look for the band’s music videos: it frees Albarn to hook up with some remarkable talent. With a guest list that includes Lou Reed, Mark E. Smith, Mos Def, Bobby Womack and the Lebanese National Orchestra for Oriental Arabic Music, eclecticism is the least you could expect from Plastic Beach, but Albarn keeps things from sprawling too far out of control. He draws peak performances from every contributor — Womack, giving his first studio performance in almost two decades, reportedly fainted after delivering his soulful lead in first single “Stylo” — usually in contexts that are worlds removed from those artists’ typical work.
The album’s loose theme of environmental change provides a thematic framework, but there’s no obvious common thread, musically, between the electronic squeals of “Glitter Freeze,” say, and the tropicalia of “On Melancholy Hill.” Nevertheless, not a note on the album feels out of place. Plastic Beach’s world is an all-embracing one, but that doesn’t make it any less coherent. Once again, Albarn has distilled his influences into an album that’ll appeal to casual listeners and globe-spanning audiophiles in equal measure.