Gorillaz’s ‘Song Machine’ Presents a Fragmented Look at 2020



British animated musical group Gorillaz released their seventh studio album, an experimental audiovisual project titled ‘Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez,’ on Friday, Oct. 23. Photo courtesy of Stereogum.

Gorillaz, the British animated musical group headed by Damon Albarn, have made a name for themselves as an eclectic and inventive musical collective. Mixing beautiful melodies performed by Albarn with unusual guests, they combined the diverse flavors of hip hop and rock along with it, and would quickly become a sensation among music fans. In February, they released Episode One of their Song Machine project. A series of songs and short skits, the series was intended to be unconnected and experimental, without the burden of having to be a cohesive album. This was an interesting decision, as it pushed the visual element already essential to the group’s sound to the forefront. In late October, Gorillaz would release these songs as a full album. Now without a connection between tracks, this new record deserves to be judged differently. 

Each song has a different featured artist, ranging from alternative rock icon Beck, to ‘70s rock maestro Elton John. This cornucopia of musicians is a far cry from their previous album, The Now Now, which only featured two artists. As appealing as a large convergence of talent seems, this doesn’t always mean the album will work. 

Gorillaz are well known for their musical eccentricity. Their first album had a very ‘90s sound, with dusty beats and a brash, punky attitude. They followed this with Demon Days, a more melodic and mellow work that still retained a noisy exuberance. My personal favorite, though, will always be their third record, 2010’s Plastic Beach. None of their albums have captured the sweet spot between beautiful melodies and fun quirky beats like Plastic Beach has, but I must say, Song Machine does come close. 

We begin on Strange Timez, featuring a performance by Robert Smith of The Cure. It seems to be going for an apocalyptic tone, but its instrumental isn’t enough to carry this through. I feel that a lusher or more orchestral beat would have fit Smith’s dramatic voice, but while I disliked it on initial listen, I have come around to it. Although it’s not a highlight, it has a great hook in both the synth and chorus, where Smith really shines. 

Next we hear The Valley of The Pagans, which definitely is a highlight. It features Beck, an artist best known for his 1994 hit Loser, which is one of my favorite songs ever. While Loser satirized slackers and dropouts, The Valley of The Pagans pokes fun at the Starbucks going, Coachella loving millennial generation. While it comes off as a little mean- spirited and a bit out of date, the song has a great production, and Beck’s performance is great as always. The next track, The Lost Chord, is reminiscent of the group’s previous record, The Now Now, carrying a distinct summer atmosphere. It’s helped along by some appealing retro synths that sound like something out of a Pink Floyd song. 

Pac Man and Chalk Towers follow, and both are quality songs. Pac Man is hinged on a playful melody, with a great refrain that adds a sense of melancholy and some ethereal keyboard sounds. Chalk Towers is a little repetitive and sort of forgettable, and doesn’t really highlight its featured artist very well. I don’t know much about St. Vincent, but she is honestly wasted here, given only a harmonized section with Albarn during the chorus. It seems to me like an artist of this acclaim and popularity could have been better showcased. 

The next song, The Pink Phantom, is a bit of a wasted opportunity. A collaboration between Elton John and Gorillaz seems like it could be wonderful, and John does some great work in the chorus, but unusually, the instrumental, usually fantastic in the group’s work, seems cheap and doesn’t seem to fit with the grandiose vocals. The guest rapper featured here, Baltimore’s 6lack, isn’t bad, but also feels really incongruous with Elton’s chorus. 

Luckily, the album is redeemed by the fantastic Aries, featuring Peter Hook, the bassist for New Order. Because New Order is one of my favorite bands, I was pleasantly surprised to hear of his involvement, and the song itself feels very much like the works of that group. Hook is not a singer, instead providing the distinctly high pitched bass sound to the track, which evokes the sound of his early band. But it’s not just the pandering nostalgia for fans of New Order that has so many listeners reeled in, as it still adds enough modern elements to feel fresh and new. The glimmering synths and bright guitars make this track my favorite on the album, and one of my favorite Gorillaz songs. 

Unfortunately, it is followed by Friday 13th, a showcase for rapper Octavian. I don’t know anything about Octavian, but the song makes me want to avoid his work because he actually seems to be off the beat at times. It’s probably my least favorite song on the album. Octavian has a voice that really just grates on my ears, as he seems to be hopelessly bored with every word he says. The lethargic instrumental isn’t very strong, and does not support Octavian’s sleepy flow. Gorillaz collaborations with rap artists have always been very strong, with several songs utilizing these artists extremely well. For example, one of the group’s best songs is 2017’s Ascension, featuring Vince Staples, who blazes through the frantic backing track, giving the song a panicky flow. These collaborators all brought an admirable intensity to the songs, but Octavian sadly does not. If you’re a fan of the rapper, you may enjoy it. We segue from this low point to Dead Butterflies, easily the most modern sounding song on the album, with its trap beats and poppy singing. I don’t love it or hate it, but it’s one I don’t think I would go back to. 

The final two tracks are also my other two favorites from the project, and interestingly, these were the first and second singles released to support the album. Desole is a breezy but melancholy song with a sweet jazz guitar rhythm, with a standout performance by Malian singer Fatoumata Diawara. One of my favorite things about Gorillaz is that they bring in artists that I would have never heard about or listened to onto their tracks, bringing them to a new audience. Diawara has a great voice and while I may not understand the words, they evoke a great feeling. 

The final track is Momentary Bliss, which was the first song released for the project. I distinctly remember being sick at the time of this song’s release back in January, and checking YouTube while lying in bed to see this song’s video on the main page. It was so long ago and it reminds me of those special few months before the COVID-19 virus consumed everyone’s lives. It now makes me nostalgic for the release of these early songs, listening to them repeatedly, and excitedly waiting to tell my friends about these new tracks the next day. 

We follow these 11 initial tracks with some bonus songs, which I won’t be talking about as much as the main tracks, but despite all of this, are solid. My favorites of these six songs are MLS and Simplicity. I can understand why these songs weren’t featured on the final song listing, as they aren’t as memorable as the concise track listing that graced the standard edition. 

Overall, Song Machine Season One: Strange Timez is a solid album that, while not as strong as the group’s other works, still carries that classic Gorillaz sound. It does lack the cohesiveness of their previous work, and some songs may be of a lower quality, but it is definitely worth a listen.