“Imagine a night where everything that you believed was turned on its head. How would you feel?” Damon Albarn posed that question early last year to his stable of collaborators in the making of “Humanz,” the first LP in seven years from genre-busting animated band Gorillaz. Albarn may have blurred all references to Donald Trump in the lyrics, but it’s still obvious what that night was supposed to be. Contrary to everyone’s expectations, that night has come to stay, sending the world spinning toward the surreal, media-obsessed, cheerfully apocalyptic universe that Gorillaz has inhabited since its inception nearly two decades ago.
With input from his teenage daughter, Albarn drew up a staggeringly long list of trans-Atlantic guests, aiming to make the album one she would be happy to dance to. California rapper Vince Staples spits fire on single “Ascension,” and Ethiopian-American singer Kelela slinks through a lush, glitchy beat on “Submission.” A perfectly cast Grace Jones growls over the electrifying guitar-driven “Charger,” and Benjamin Clementine’s softly blistering baritone lights up “Hallelujah Money,” the sardonic hymn released on inauguration eve.
Since the band’s 1998 debut, Jamie Hewlett’s meticulously crafted visuals have evolved from color-splattered caricature into sleek almost photorealism, but the personalities of the band members are least present on “Humanz” of all their albums. And because the contributors and styles change with each song, “Humanz” sometimes feels more like a compilation with Albarn as a backing band of one than it does a Gorillaz album. Some of the band’s unique flavor still remains, as in the collaboration between Albarn, Pusha T, and Mavis Staples on “Let Me Out,” an unlikely match that wonderfully locks together.
But without a unified sound or story to focus on, the album sometimes falls into the modern sinkhole of too many options presented at once. The mediasphere surrounding the album encompasses awkward alternate reality smartphone apps, 360-degree videos, and Sonos-sponsored pop-up “spirit houses” for enhanced listening. Songs are connected by ham-handed spoken word announcements, including an “unconformity oath.” The universe of Gorillaz was mesmerizing because of how much it showed without telling; now that it does both, it’s not as hard to look away.