I do not want to overstate the situation, but it has long seemed that Gorillaz is running out of steam. After a string of amazing albums, culminating in the breathtaking, feet-moving Plastic Beach that measures up with some of the best albums of the past decade, Damon Albarn released the first real dud in the discography with The Fall. Still, this was forgiveable. It was an album for the fans, composed completely on an iPad during the tour. Sure, it was a full, fourth album, but it never really felt like one. In hindsight, I would almost say it is more of a mixtape. Just last year, though, the next full project for the band was finally releasing, Humanz. But after a lot of hype and promising concepts, Humanz was dead on arrival. Critics tended to be more kind to it than the general audience was, but even just a year out from this release Humanz is already widely considered the band’s worst album, other than maybe The Fall. In my opinion, it more than lives up to this low opinion, disappointing on every end with low energy tracks abundant in the album, snippets and skits that amount to little, and just a general lack of refinement to make the whole project come together the way it desperately needed to for it to work.
Just over a year later, The Now Now, a sixth studio album, has been released. The timing and quickness of the recording conjures to mind the release of The Fall after Plastic Beach, which also brings a bit anxiety when considering the considerably lower quality of that product to the album accompanying it. On the surface, this is an accurate depiction. The Now Now was recorded on tour, same as The Fall, and also features a great deal of inspiration from the traveling being done. Also notable is the extreme lack of contributors. While Humanz was stuffed with features even more so than Demon Days and Plastic Beach before it, The Now Now goes the way of The Fall by having only three on two songs. This album truly is the follow-up to The Fall, though this time we get what truly feels like a full album rather than a random tracks collection. Furthermore, The Now Now actually outdoes its companion by delivering on a consistent basis and giving a full experience that is not bogged down by all the bloated nonsense that ultimately made Humanz a bundle of unrealized potential. Unfortunately, this is no “return to form” for Gorillaz, as The Now Now falls far short of the high bar set by their first three albums by being merely passable, not great.
Admittedly, The Now Now starts off amazingly with “Humility,” the first single that was released and the song that got me a bit excited for what was to come. The song is gentle and bright, among the most easy-going in sound that Gorillaz has ever released. Lyrically, it is also quite effortlessly profound, seeming like it is not trying too hard to make a point, but letting the point make itself. Considering that the song is titled “Humility,” that is actually pretty perfect. In particular, I loved the chorus and its rays of sunshine musical quality, as well as the lines like “Reset myself and get back on track” which might sound too trite or self-serious elsewhere if the whole thing was not so dang lovable. The follow-up is the equally amazing “Tranz,” which speaks to issues of identity and what it means to be accepting of other people. The music is appropriately darker here as well, making for a shift away from the brighter tone of “Humility” and a shift that is ultimately permanent on the album, which I found to be okay even if, deep down, I wanted another “Humility” style track to pop up somewhere. The song crests around the lines “Do you look like me, do you feel like me, do you turn into your effigy? Do you dance like this forever?” which fits perfectly over the urgency of the music.
After such an amazing start, it is rough that such an immediate downturn happens with “Hollywood,” which has a smooth Snoop Dogg feature that unfortunately cannot save the song. Speaking of contributions, Jamie Principle’s are practically meaningless here, and I wish he would have just been left off since his voice throws off what is going on. After all, the beat here is actually pretty nice and catchy, and Albarn’s vocals have their usual dreariness that always seems to pair well with the music he creates. Really, this song suffers from the problems that plauged Humanz by not using its many parts effectively, and sounding like a half-baked attempt at combining a party atmosphere with social commentary that falls on its face.
Ultimately, where the album goes from here is not bad, but not necessarily all that special. “Kansas,” “Sorcerers,” “Idaho,” and “Lake Zurich” are all these dreary songs with little creativity at work and even less in the way of variety. In fact, the songs can starts to blend into each other a lot, with the problem being that each of the first three songs were so distinctive that this makes the middle section of the album feel like an endurance test. Even if “Hollywood” was flawed, it had energy. By contrast, these four songs sound a bit lifeless, with even Damon Albarn’s best efforts to vocally inflect his way to meaning do nothing to overcome the musical swamp he’s created here. This is by far the weakest stretch of the album, and it is really a shame since the songwriting itself is not so bad. In particular, I think that these songs being a bit more spread out in the track listing might have helped to dull their impact a bit more. “Lake Zurich” in particular would have been much better somewhere else, given its higher tempo and more vibrant synths, but it is ultimately powerless here to overcome the effects of the past few tracks. In the end, then, the biggest weakness of The Now Now might very well be that it lacks an understanding in the effective power of track order in an album listening experience. Nothing is allowed to stand out here, which is a real shame since “Kansas” and “Lake Zurich” could have been much more effective if better positioned.
While not some huge banger, “Magic City” picks things back up with enough coming from Albarn’s voice to match the kookiness of the music. Lyrically, the album has long been rather insignificant, and that continues here, but I will say that the mood of the album picks back up a little more here. Rather than being simply dreary, “Magic City” hits more of a somberness that does enough to make it passable. “Fire Flies” is similar in effect, with a bassline and synth lead here that compliments the dreamy quality evoked in the lyrics (the song literally opens up with “If you see me floating by”). Still, there is a distinct lack of excitement within the works, or real emotional delivery. It stands particularly stark in this song given its obvious attempts at emotional grandstanding (“I was ever chasing fire flies”).
Meanwhile, the album has an actual breakthrough on “One Percent,” another slower song, but this time with a true build to some passion. It is just unfortunate that the song is only a couple of minutes, since I did not want it to be gone before it was. It was actually moving and powerful enough that after the long slog through the middle section and continuously slow tempo songs after, it was amazing that another slower song would stand out so much, really demonstrating how well it was written and performed. “Souk Eye” takes the more downtempo tone of the albums last two-thirds and adds a slight call back to the opening track of “Humility” with its slightly brightened tone and to “Tranz” in the later moments with the sharp and flat tones on the synthesizers. What I end up feeling is a bit wishful that the rest of the album could have more qualities like this, but “Souk Eye” works as a great album closer here, bringing everything together pretty well. Lyrically, it is a pretty typical song of longing, but the music is what really shines. The song has a futuristic quality that is distinctly Gorillaz, making for a powerful reminder at the end of what the band is capable of.
I wish this album was better, and really feel like it could have been. Maybe the short writing and recording time caused it to be rushed a bit, resulting in a lot of treading the same ground, but there is ultimately not enough creativity and conscious design here to make it a great experience. The individual songs are each okay, and a few are amazing. “Humility” is one of my favorite songs on the year, with a sound and lyrics that prove irresistible. But too much of this album sounds too similar to consider it great, since an entire third of the album is not much more than background music. Like The Fall, this is going to be an outlier for Gorillaz career, though the quality here is certainly improved. I feel like this album is just inches from being really good, since it is not awful or even average as it stands. If one or two more songs the level of “Tranz” or “Souk Eye” could have taken the spot of songs like “Hollywood” or “Sorcerer,” then I might have a completely different feeling coming out The Now Now. Nonetheless, this is not the case, and The Now Now ends up being nothing more or less than decent.