New Gorillaz album is disappointing

cracker island
Cracker Island album art by Jamie Hewlett

The Gorillaz’s eighth studio album “Cracker Island” impressively manages to encapsulate the band’s greatest and most unique tropes and themes, but fails to offer anything new.

Damon Albarn, the founder of and lead singer for the British rock band Blur, created the virtual band Gorillaz in 1998 as a side project. Consisting of the fictional 2-D, Murdoc, Noodle, and Russel, The Gorillaz have consistently broken artistic barriers since their self-titled debut album release in 2001 by seamlessly fusing genres across the entire musical spectrum.

Albarn, who has never shied away from incorporating sociopolitical messaging into his music, continues to let his disdain for modern societal themes show on “Cracker Island,” focusing on our increasing inability to disassociate with technology and social media.

The tracklist kicks off with a bouncy title track featuring vocals from Thundercat. With a somewhat robotic flow, 2-D (voiced by Albarn) sets the tone for the record by introducing a “Made-up paradise, where the truth was auto-tuned,” most likely referring to the character’s digital, fictional life, which directly parallels society’s online presence. In this fictional world, the truth is often warped.

“Oil” featuring Stevie Nicks is a sharp change in direction from the opener. Carrying on with the message of living in an imaginary world, 2-D and Nicks harmonize beautifully over a playful instrumental that easily could’ve landed on “Plastic Beach” made in 2010. Funnily enough, 2-D directly references “Empire Ants” from “Plastic Beach” with the line “Fly out the doldrums and recall the log.”

The act gets a little stale by the time the third track “The Tired Influencer” rolls around. 2-D has a “conversation” with Siri on this track, which could be a reference to the 2013 movie “Her”. In the movie, Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) falls in love with an operating system. While Theodore manages to make seemingly deep connections with the computer, Siri only responds to 2-D’s inquiries with “Sorry, I didn’t get that,” and “Here’s what I found on the web.”

The single “Silent Running” is a highlight on the tracklist. Great vocal performances from 2-D and Adeleye Omatotayo pair nicely with the ‘80s themed synth-heavy instrumental. The clever metaphor of “silent running” is a nod to society’s habit of mindlessly scrolling through the endless wormhole of media.

“New Gold” with Tame Impala and Bootie Brown is the single that announced the forthcoming release of the album. While I’m still unsure of the track’s role within the context of the record, it’s undoubtedly extremely catchy and danceable. 

“Baby Queen” is a serene and gorgeous ballad written about a dream Albarn had in which he reconnects with a Thai princess he met (in real life) in 1997. The majority of the track’s runtime is just 2-D singing the chorus, so it is definitely the least lyrically dense song on the album. But despite the lack of subject matter, the song’s dreamlike and spacy atmosphere makes it one of the most sonically impressive cuts on the album. 2-D singing about a dream adds another dimension to the album’s “fake world” theme as well.

It’s unfortunate that what follows the album’s best track might be Gorillaz’s most boring and forgettable track in their discography. While I wouldn’t call “Tarantula” a necessarily bad song, I have to note that I’ve listened to “Cracker Island” about a dozen times and I still manage to forget what the song sounds like every time I read the title. As a matter of fact, as I’m writing this sentence, I couldn’t tell you one lyric from the song.

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Bad Bunny manages to pick up the pace a little bit on “Tormenta” with some signature catchy flows. But much like the track which precedes it, this cut is still pretty underwhelming. For a Gorillaz and Bad Bunny collaboration, most would probably expect fireworks. This track is criminally disappointing by both artists’ standards.

“Skinny Ape” works well as the penultimate closer. 2-D breaks the fourth wall when he tells listeners not to be sad for him because, after all, he’s just a “Cartoon G”. (Gorilla) This album, along with Gorillaz’s entire discography, walks listeners through the pitfalls and struggles of 2-D. The character has been historically outspoken about his desire to escape his own reality, so acknowledging his problems as artificial is an ironic and cool concept. The hectic guitar and drums make for a grand ending as well, which contrasts well with the relaxed finisher.

2-D and Beck provide a satisfactory ending to an overall mediocre project with “Possession Island.” I could never be upset with a Gorillaz ballad, and this song is no exception. The soft piano, acoustic guitar, and even a surprise trumpet solo end the album beautifully. The final refrain, “Where things, they don’t exist, And we’re all in this together ’til the end” is a heart-warming line that ties the record’s narratives together.

I think Damon Albarn is a genius whose musical accolades speak for themselves. I personally haven’t heard of an artist who has been able to match the versatility and raw creativity of what Albarn has done with The Gorillaz. 

With that being said, “Cracker Island” fails to live up to the incredibly high standards set by albums like “Gorillaz”, “Plastic Beach”, “Demon Days”, and even the heavily criticized “Humanz”. While the 5 singles released to promote the album are all enjoyable, it’s disappointing that these took up half of the album’s tracklist. 

I found the “fake reality” trope to be interesting upon first listening, but the idea was never fully fleshed out enough to keep my attention. Some of the boring, repetitive, and formulaic songs made it even harder to stay engaged with the storylines.

I don’t dislike any song on this project. In fact, “Cracker Island” can be a fun and enjoyable pop album to listen to without having to think about much. But this record leaves a lot to be desired due to its lack of stand-out tracks.

I don’t know whether this would be a dig at The Gorillaz or a testament to how advanced AI has become recently, but I honestly think if you were to ask an AI bot to produce a Gorillaz album, it wouldn’t sound much different than “Cracker Island”.

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