The theory of punctuated equilibrium posits that evolution happens in short bursts surrounded by long stretches of inactivity. This theory also applies to the Gorillaz discography. Just as Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett’s cartoon band released their first album in five years in 2010, then cranked out another one the same year, so “The Now Now” comes a mere year after “Humanz” broke a seven-year hiatus. Without the gallery of guest stars or multimedia spectacles which are typically this project’s stock in trade, the album succeeds — or fails — solely on the merits of Albarn’s songwriting.
Even when it ventures towards the dancefloor, “The Now Now” is one of Gorillaz’ most consistently melancholy albums. Most songs have at least two cool vintage-sounding synthesizer parts; sometimes they’re complementing a low-budget electro-disco beat, but just as often they’re sonic rain clouds, providing a suitably overcast atmosphere for the more dour cuts. Throughout, Albarn sings in the same exhausted murmur he’s used since Blur’s heyday, his voice frequently muffled to convey maximum alienation. George Benson’s breezy guitar licks on “Humility” and the hammy Jamie Principle monologues of “Hollywood” provide some levity, but otherwise Albarn seems determined to have himself a good sulk.
Albarn’s way with a pretty melody keeps “The Now Now” from becoming a gray blur, but the lyrics are a bit dodgier. You can tell this album was made on tour because it covers such universal topics as being on the road and missing someone, chilling at Bruce Willis’s ski lodge (!), and how Hollywood and LA are like, totally weird, right? At times, Albarn’s good sense completely abandons him — what made him think he could sing “that’s the ball where we be chained” with a straight face? Even the stronger lyrics aren’t without problems; “Tranz” nails the disorientation that follows a long night out, but for a middle-aged dude like Albarn, co-opting that title is not a great look.
How much Gorillaz fans enjoy “The Now Now” will depend on why they became fans in the first place. Anyone captivated by Hewlett’s world-building will probably feel a little let down, as will those who fell for their eclectic, big-tent approach to pop. That leaves the Damon Albarn diehards, and since this is essentially an Albarn solo album, they’re probably its ideal audience anyway. “The Now Now” will make for a perfectly pleasant soundtrack to your next rainy day, but hopefully it doesn’t take half a decade for Gorillaz to rediscover their ambition.