Gorillaz – Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez

9 Dec

The music industry has suffered dreadfully in 2020. Artists new and old have been forced to forego their primary resource of revenue from gigs and events, and a locked-down world’s unparalleled dependence on social media means that great music doesn’t always get enough of the public’s mindshare. 2020 has also ruined the culture of the music festival – where you can walk a hundred feet and be transported from rock to hip-hop to EDM, where you can witness exciting musical connections in real-life, where you can truly get absorbed into the sounds around you.

Of course, no one can make music festivals happen again, for some time now. But Song Machine Season One: Strange Timez – the latest album from Gorillaz – comes close to approximating the music festival experience on its eleven-song tracklist. 

If you’re new to the Gorillaz world, you should know that it primarily consists of musician Damon Albarn of Blur fame and artist Jamie Hewlett. Gorillaz is a virtual band, with four virtual, animated band members – and they have been for 20 years (talk about being ahead of the curve!). Albarn and Hewlett craft the storylines and artwork of each album to match and often augment the music, usually with the help of carefully-curated featured artists. 

Song Machine is billed as an audiovisual webseries project – which, in 2020, could not have been more apt. What that means, realistically, is that Gorillaz has completely upended old-fashioned concepts such as albums and lead singles. Song Machine began way back in January 2020 with a theme song, the first “Machine Bitez” (short teaser snippet) and the first song from the album – “Momentary Bliss” feat. Slowthai and Slaves. Since then, the band has periodically released almost all of its eleven songs as a separate single, each with teasers, snippets and enough space to grow in the listener’s mind. Why should songs be delivered as an album, all at once? Why should some songs be “leads” and others be fillers? These are the questions that seem to have driven Gorillaz on Song Machine, and frankly, the results are remarkable.

Every track on the album features one or more selections from an eclectic collection of guest artists. Elton John shows up on a song with an Atlanta-based rapper. The anti-establishment British hip-hop star Slowthai shows up with his compatriot punk rock band Slaves. French-Malian folk star Fatoumata Diawara shines on her feature, as does The Cure frontman Robert Smith. The entire experience, start to finish, is exhilarating in its sheer mix of genres, artists, tones, styles and so much more – with the underlying thread of Albarn and Hewlett’s creativity running through. (If you are interested in that thread, we highly recommend watching the episodic webseries on YouTube.)

Of course, fantastic features don’t automatically make fantastic songs, but in this case, there are no weak links in the entire eleven-song run. We’ve already spoken at length about the sparky “Pac-Man” feat. ScHoolboy Q (song review), the joyous trip of “The Valley of the Pagans” feat. Beck (song review), and the perfect vocal mash-up that is “The Pink Phantom” feat. Elton John and 6LACK (song review) – but there’s so much more to unpack on Song Machine

For example, the opening track “Strange Timez” with Smith takes an ethereal look at our planet and the strange times it begets (“Spinnin’ around until the Sun comes up / Strange time to see the light”); truer words have never been spoken, in hindsight. “Aries” featuring Joy Division bassist Peter Hook and English dance-pop producer Georgia is reminiscent of the “On Melancholy Hill”-era Gorillaz in all its smoothness and subtle beauty. “The Lost Chord”, featuring British soul singer Leee Jones, is the song that Arctic Monkeys wish they made on Tranquility Base: ethereal yet packed with rock-infused drums and bass. And we admit we haven’t heard much of Fatou before this, but her powerful vocals on the groovy, beautiful “Desole” has suddenly made us want to learn a lot more about Malian music. 

Simply put, Song Machine is a near-perfect album of eleven songs that all deserve single-worthy status. Gorillaz has rethought the entire album concept into a collection of equally-good songs that are all equally-deserving of their own time to shine. With Song Machine, Gorillaz has provided the fun and exhilaration that has been amiss in our 2020 lives, and for that we couldn’t be more grateful. We’ll be listening to this album for years to come, and cannot wait to experience the upcoming Season Two.

Note: This review is for the Standard verison of Song Machine Episode One: Strange Timez, which consists of 11 tracks. There is, happily, a deluxe version with six extra tracks, of which we particularly recommend “MLS”, featuring rapper JPEGMAFIA and Japanese all-girl rock group CHAI.

Best tracks: “The Valley of the Pagans”, “Desole”, “The Pink Phantom”

Rating: 9.5/10

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