Gorillaz Take an Understated Approach on ‘The Now Now’

Gorillaz, the brainchild of Blur’s Damon Albarn and artist Jamie Hewlett, have been something of an enigma ever since they emerged with their 2001 self-titled debut. A “virtual band,” comprising four animated characters, 2-D, Russel, Noodle, Murdoc, and Ace, whose music videos depict them inhabiting a fictional universe, Gorillaz quickly garnered praise for their original blend of such disparate styles as Brit pop, hip-hop and world music. Their latest record, “The Now Now” is a solo album by Albarn’s character 2-D and something of a departure from the star-studded, sonic restlessness of earlier releases, showcasing a more subdued and stoic set of songs.

The album begins with “Humility,” some cartoon funk, with high-pitched wheezing synths, and Albarn sounding as if he’s been recorded on a cell phone, distorted and in low fidelity. The vocals are a few levels removed, making the song sound like an unrealized idea written in shorthand. Perhaps Albarn’s indistinct vocals are meant to represent the titular “humility,” in their modest understatement. Featured guitarist George Benson lays down breezy licks, and it’s a decidedly summery affair, but the whole number sounds a bit underwhelming and lazy. Next “Tranz” sets up a tight groove, with punchy handclaps and cascading percussion that pops open and filters closed. Albarn is apparently still mumbling on a phone somewhere, enunciating his words as if he’s half humming and half singing, with occasional, hints of Bowie-esque inflections. His lethargic delivery seems as if designed to disclaim the wah-wah tomfoolery by framing it in ironic posturing.  “Hollywood” descends further into P-funk territory, with an infectious, syncopated bass line. House producer Jamie Principle’s, hypeman rapping creates a lighthearted, playful vibe, reminiscent of the jokey proto hip-hop of Frankie Smith’s “Double Dutch Bus,” and of ‘80s extended dance mixes of pop songs. Snoop Dogg drops a short verse, with his laid back West Coast flow glides and bounces over the minimal tectonics of morphing synth blurbs.

The third single, “Kansas,” is a melodically driven tune, with ‘a steady pulse of vaguely ‘60s, colorful, circus instrumentation, a propulsive bass riff, and.some campy, sustained vibrato. Chimes and bells recalls bits of Albarn’s “Trainspotting” soundtrack work in the ‘90s. The good-time jams continue, and the sedated singing making the track exceptionally mellow. This neatly segues into the short and sweet “Sorcererz,” a song with brass bits that give ‘70s soul element. “Idaho” is a change of pace,a lull between the bouncy dancefloor jingles, beginning with a sparse arrangement of eeries strings, and Albarn’s singing more centered, and tinkering percussion. Orchestral elements enter the mix, until it’s transformed into a lush,cinematic number. The instrumental “Lake Zurich” is a neon, gyrating interlude of theme music from Gorillaz animated universe.

“Magic City” has classic Albarn melodies making it one of the record’s most poignant moments, with vaguely carnival instrumentation, and comes to a quirkily abrupt anding. “Fire Flies” trudges along a deconstructed, off-kilter bassline, with choirs, and twinkling, meandering melodies emerging in the end and swelling the piece to grand proportions. “One Percent” is plaintive, melancholy, soft number, with ominous chords and a theatrical feel, but Albarn now sounding more listless than ever, as if grown entirely apathetic, and disillusioned with the world at large.  Finally, “Souk Eye” brings the album to closure with intricate,jazz-tinged guitar figures,,sprinklings of bells, and a richly textured dirge that gradually fades out.

“The Now Now” will likely strike long term Gorillaz fans as rather confusing. The verve, dynamism, and innovative genre hopping that have traditionally characterized the band seem to have all but disappeared. The new record is a set of comparatively uninspired and uncompelling umbers. Albarn’s sings throughout the album as if he’s no longer trying, and it’s unclear what has led him to take this approach. There are artists who would consider such evolutions signs of artistic progress, reflecting a lack of concern for convention, and a comfort and confidence with one’s natural voice. On the other hand, maybe the new vocal stylings are merely meant to convey apathy and disaffection. At any rate, the new record demonstrates that Gorillaz are still a remarkably original band, and the new songs are still full of color, energy, and personality.

The Now Now” is available June 29 on Apple Music.