by Justin Eisenstadt
Astute observers may notice that I only review albums on Justin's Jukebox that I actually like. As such, I don't consider Justin's Jukebox so much of a "music review" podcast as I do a "music recommendation" podcast. After all, you wouldn't put songs on a jukebox that you did not actually want to hear!
There are albums that I really like, there are albums that I love, and then there are albums that I could not possibly imagine living without. Plastic Beach, the third studio album by the virtual band that made virtual bands popular, Gorillaz, falls into all three of those categories. It was released in 2010, and I am fully aware that the fourth Gorillaz album, The Fall, was released last year, but neither that album nor the group's first two albums latched onto my soul with such tenacity in the way that Plastic Beach did. Two years after its release, I still listen to this album constantly.
I received a promotional copy of this album about a month before it was released when I was an intern at 98 Rock. It's ironic that an album I now treasure so dearly, an album that has claimed a slot in my illustrious Top 5 Favorite Albums list, was one that I did not have to pay for and in fact was not even on my radar. Up until that point, I considered myself only a casual Gorillaz fan at best. Because I did not watch their music videos nor go to any of their shows, I was (and still am) missing out on a good 50% of the intended Gorillaz experience.
I was not immediately hooked upon first listen, but after repeated listens this album will sink its hooks deeper and deeper into your subconscious, reeling you in. There is so much variety here, so many ideas jammed into one package, that you will continue to discover new elements that previously escaped your attention. The number of cameo appearances here is staggering: Snoop Dogg, Gruff Rhys from Super Furry Animals, Mos Def, Lou Reed (the principle songwriter of The Velvet Underground best known for the gender-bending "Walk on the Wild Side"), veteran R&B singer Bobby Womack, Mick Jones and Paul Simonon from The Clash, Mark E. Smith, Bashy, Kano, Little Dragon, the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, and my personal favorite, hippy-dippy hip hop trio De La Soul. You may remember that De La Soul won a Grammy for their collaboration with Gorillaz on the song "Feel Good Inc." I've loved De La Soul ever since my buddy Tim introduced me to their debut album, 3 Feet High and Rising and particularly the track "Tread Water," a song which my girlfriend Lena finds terrifying (this will be a common theme during this review).
Speaking of common themes, let me give my interpretation of what this eclectic collection of hip-hop, art rock, funk, electronic, and orchestral music is all about. In both a figurative and literal sense, this album is about garbage. Damon Albarn, the creative genius behind the Gorillaz and the producer, composer, and maestro of this album, was inspired when he compared two landfills that he visited, one in Mali and one outside London, and compared the way that two countries dealt with garbage. In a more abstract sense, this album is also about the detritus of pop culture that accumulates in the collective consciousness, the bits and pieces which wash up on our shores and get recycled and rehashed and remade. There is a deep, biting, and even melancholic criticism of consumer capitalism in the guise of songs about microwave breakfasts ("Superfast Jellyfish"), fast cars ("Stylo"), and game shows ("Sweepstakes").
This is a truly post-modern album (and God help me for the shit-storm the use of that term is going to unleash); it is a pastiche of styles, references, and even artists. Compare the mash-up of Arabic rhythms and odd Reggae-style rapping of "White Flag" with deceptively simple keyboards and Lou Reed's deadpan vocals on "Some Kind of Nature."
The two tracks which really define this album are "Superfast Jellyfish" and "Stylo." This first one is a bizarre hip-hop collaboration between Damon Albarn, Gruff Rhys, and De La Soul which features samples from a 1986 commercial for Swanson's microwave "Great Start Breakfasts." I love it, but Lena finds it utterly terrifying (probably because of the repeated references to King Neptune and his water-breathers and "dying like rabbits"). "Stylo" opens with a pounding electro-funk beat that serves to highlight Mos Def's deft and understated rhymes and a an unforgettably commanding Bobby Womack, who, at 68 years old, is kicking serious ass.
Before I wrap things up, I just want to highlight one more song that is a must-listen that might get passed over coming as it does as the penultimate song on the album. "Cloud of Unknowing" is basically just a synth and Bobby Womack, whose soaring, slightly gravelly singing serves to expose the emotional core of this album. After all the snark and satire, this song is refreshingly sincere and optimistic. Make sure you stick it out and get to this song. You can skip the last one if you want to.