“If you watch MTV for too long, it’s a bit like hell – there’s nothing of substance there. So we got this idea for a cartoon band, something that would be a comment on that.” – Jamie Hewlett.
These words perfectly capture the essence and purpose of Gorillaz, a virtual band formed in 1998 as the brainchild of Blur-frontman Damon Albarn and Tank-Girl-creator Jamie Hewlett. It started off as a musical experiment, guided by the simple principal that quality always speaks louder than style and presentation. At the same time, it was intended to be a satirical look at the way we perceive and consume music in the 21st century. The fundamental idea was to create an act that would seem like a gimmick on the surface, but with a serious, undercurrent artistic vision bursting through its bright, loony facade. Something that was severely lacking in the stale, monotonous and disposable products of the mainstream music industry at the time.
The result was the 2001 self-titled album, which shocked the world with its playful blend of alternative hip hop, punk rock, brit-pop, reggae, and various other musical genres. The record eventually sold over 7 million copies worldwide, going from being dismissed by critics as pure nonsense to becoming revered for its audacious nature. In this article, I break down the album, track by track, as we make our way through all 3 phases of the band in anticipation for the upcoming 4th studio album. This is phase 1: Celebrity Take Down.
Kicking off the whole thing, we are introduced to the trademark sound of Gorillaz with a grimy hip-hop beat played continuously over a looped acoustic guitar, setting a thick atmosphere and dreary mood that dominates most of the LP. You can clearly feel the dub-influences of bands such as Long Beach Dub Allstars and Sublime, but what makes the track so unique is Albarn’s vocal, which is simultaneously haunting and beautiful. A sitar also glides effortlessly into the mix about halfway through, adding that “extra dash of weirdness”, according to lead singer 2D (portrayed by Damon himself).
The song is very straight-forward and happy, perhaps the most blissful the band has ever sounded. There seems to be quite a strong consensus about the meaning of the song, with many people arguing that it’s simply about having fun and playing music together. Some have also suggested that the phrase “It’s the money or stop” is a metaphor for the perpetual battle between the music business and the art of music itself. Not matter what the truth is, it sure as hell is one catchy trip-hop jam, and a great album opener.
Things get really punky on this track, as Damon channels his inner Joe Strummer, singing along to the command of a hammering drum pattern accompanied by a hard-rocking, electric riff. The sound is very reminiscent of the new-wave sensibilities found during the second British invasion, but it also has a bit of an off-kilter AC/DC quality to it. This is a brilliant example of how the Gorillaz sound can be hard to pin down and compare to other artists. The quirky keyboards on here provide a really strange rhythm, adding an extra layer of chaotic anarchy to the otherwise simple composition.
The title itself refers to the time signature in which the song was written, which is an element that will catch your attention right away for sure. As for the meaning of the song, I’m not really sure what it’s about. The easy guess would be drugs, but it could also be about the magic of love. How it can be funny and tragic at the same time, especially when it isn’t around anymore. As the lyrics read: “Magic makes no sound. It’s good for me“.
So is this magic a good thing or a bad thing? 2D seems to be as confused as we are. Maybe it’s a bit of both, depending on what we expect from it.
3. Tomorrow Comes Today
The fourth and final single from the LP; a slow-rolling trip-hop ballad known for its wild-west melodica melody, which fades in and out throughout the entire track. It’s the type of dark hip hop that really gets under your skin, not coming directly at you, but sneaking up on you from behind. The melodica acts like a chilly breeze that makes the hairs on your neck stand up, while a vague, ghostly piano opens the song at subzero temperatures.
Thematically, however, this song really stands out from the bunch, talking about the loneliness and isolation of living in the post-modern digital era. It’s about desperately wanting to connect, but at the same time not knowing how, possibly as a result of unprocessed, rapid technological advancement. You would think that instant access to information would bring us closer together, but not from this point of view. This narrator doesn’t understand the change that’s happening around him, and it leaves him selfless in all the wrong ways.
What is his place in this new world? This existence that, as the instrumentation suggests, moves with snail-like speed in a never-ending circle of emotional disconnect. “I’ll pay, when tomorrow comes today”, 2D sings in the chorus, literally telling us that if money could make time go faster, he would gladly pay the price. I’m not going to judge whether this line is to be interpreted as suicidal thoughts or a deep desire to reconnect with people again. I’ll leave that up to you.
4. New Genius (Brother)
This dark, symphonic trip-hop odyssey is as pitch-black and sinister as Gorillaz can possibly be. For the first time, we really get a good taste of the grainy lo-fi production that is so inherent to the first phase. Drummer Cass Browne (or Russel, if you will) provides some rather interesting percussion here, banging on glasses and cups, as well as his own kit, which gives the whole track a very dirty texture. You almost get the feeling that you are right in the middle of a concrete jungle, as people all around you suddenly start to play whatever object they can get their hands on. We also hear these cool, quiet gang vocals lingering in the back, and once again, the melodica creeps through the cracks of the instrumentation like tumbleweed blowing through a desert landscape.
Damon’s voice is both mesmerizing and transfixing here, reaching falsetto early on, and keeping the high pitch all the way to the end. The narrative picture that 2D paints is a somber and serious one, telling us not to trust strangers, because “they might promise you that the river ain’t deep”. This could mean a number of things.
First off, it could be seen as a warning to anyone who has ever been tempted, or is likely to be tempted, by the crooks of society. Pedophiles, scammers, politicians. It’s not entirely clear exactly who we are supposed to be afraid of. In fact, it seems like 2D is not really sure himself, which is making him paranoid and alert. You can also look at it from a more direct angle. Could 2D be referring to himself as a vigilante of sorts? Has he killed a man (“I blew a bad man away”), and does he encourage others to do the same? (“Brothers, sisters too. Do what you must do.”)
But like on Tomorrow Comes Today, 2D is presented to us as delusional, maybe even schizophrenic. “Dream of my world. I live in my world“, he sings very tiredly, as if he hasn’t slept for days. Maybe this one is really about him not being able to distinguish between fiction and reality. Chew on that for a moment.
5. Clint Eastwood
Del the Funky Homosapien spits some mean rhymes and verses on the smash-hit that launched Gorillaz out of obscure novelty and into the stratosphere. It’s a deft mixture of hip hop, dub, house, and symphonic rock, featuring a chorus so infectious that even old folks can’t help but sing along.
Unlike some other tracks on the album, the backbone here is provided by a drum machine that chugs along in classic stoner-fashion. Even the piano sounds like it was played and recorded by someone on a high, being so simple and repetitive, almost anyone could’ve composed it by accident, musician or not. However, this doesn’t detract from the song or make it any less compelling. The groove works impeccably, and the use of the melodica to create a “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly”-vibe only solidifies its pop culture appeal.
Of course, the lyrics also contribute greatly to the success, balancing between an easy-to-remember chorus and trippy acid bars. Again, it would be tempting to write it off as another song about taking drugs and getting higher than the empire state building. “I ain’t happy, I’m feeling glad. I’ve got sunshine in a bag” obviously refers to someone who is unhappy with his life and tries to escape through psychedelic substances.
The word “sunshine” could also represent the 1960’s term for LSD and other recreational drugs. “I’m useless, but not for long; the future is coming on” further underlines this theory, basically talking about the belief that drugs can actually make artists more creative. Digging even deeper, the track is essentially a commentary on the pressure that one might feel when deciding to make music for a living.
6. Man Research (Clapper)
“This is the breakfast club!”, 2D yells on yet another oddball concoction of styles, drawing heavily from genres such as electronica and dub. The beat is fairly simple on this one, pounding ahead in millennial club fashion. In the background, a wretched guitar comes and goes like waves clashing against the shore, while synthesizers and keyboards create a surreal, spacious atmosphere.
Once again we have a track that is very hard to decipher, since we know virtually nothing about the inspiration for it, as with most of Gorillaz’ material. One thing we can deduct, however, is that Damon is really interested in keeping the secret and maintaining a sense of mystery, and perhaps that’s for the best. After all, it makes it much more fun for us to make up our own meaning of what the song is trying to say.
In this case, there really doesn’t seem to be a clear point or message. It almost feels like random observations of 2D’s state of mind. At this point, it’s not very hard to tell what kind of lead singer he is. Paranoid; anxious; always on the lookout for stimulation. This also explains the line “I see tafil in the sand”, referring to Tafil alprazolam, which is a form of medication prescribed to people with severe panic/anxiety disorders. If you combine that with the character’s need for coffee (“Bring me the coffee”), it becomes very obvious that we’re talking about some kind of mental condition.
There is also a mention of sunshine in the lyrics, most likely referring to the same drug that 2D was taking on the preceding cut, Clint Eastwood, in order to forget his angst, withstand the industry pressure, and be creative. But unlike that track, the mood here seems to be a lot less chill and a lot more frantic. Coincidence? I don’t think so. If “Clint Eastwood” was the high, this is the low.
Not too much to say about this one. It’s a pretty straight-forward punk jam, as the title indicates. Short, distorted, angry, and to the point. The vocal is so muddled, and the sound so lo-fi, that the shouted lyrics barely make any sense at all, which goes very well with the ethics of the underground punk scene, where skill and talent is less important than energy and attitude. 2D sounds very frustrated, yelling “shut up!” at whoever is causing him all this pain and confusion. And if we have learned anything about him by know, it is that his troubles come from within himself, not the world outside. He is the enemy, the target of his own anger. Considering his fragile condition, he probably is screaming at his own mind to stop leading him further into despair. It’s like he just plugged in his guitar and started pouring his conflicted emotions out on the floor. That’s the whole point of punk music, being able to release one’s aggression through simple power chords and unfiltered opinions.
8. Sound Check (Gravity)
Once again we’re back to a super heavy and sirup-thick trip-hop sound, which stands in sharp contrast to what came just before it. 2D has fallen back into misery, now pleading for gravity not to pull him down. Of course, this is not to be taken literally, but rather as a metaphor for his own mental sickness, which keeps dragging him down this deep, black hole of insanity. By this point, he’s hit rock-bottom and doesn’t know what to do anymore, so he resorts to begging for mercy. The problem, though, is that he’s been lying in this cluttered gutter of emotional distress for so long now, it might just be too late for him pull himself back up to see the light. Disaster seems inevitable, and in a final attempt to recover, he simply accepts his own situation instead of trying to fight against it. Will he make it out alive? Stick around to find out, and until then, enjoy the mean sound of some killer turntables.
9. Double Bass
A nearly 5-minute long instrumental journey into the dark abyss of 2D’s tumultuous mind. How do I know? Because as one of the few cuts on the album, we actually have written statements from two of the band’s members. This is what drummer Russel Hobbs has to say about it: “I‘d bought this great little thing, a tiny microphone with a sucker pad on the end. When you place it against the side of someone’s head, it picks up and records the sound of their thoughts. It literally transforms what they’re imagining into music. Good for sampling”.
In other words, all the offbeat electronic glitches, gloomy guitars, and water-dripping synths are representative of the battle that is taking place inside 2D. The bassist, Murdoc Niccals, further elaborates on this by saying: “He has now drunk some Jagermeister, and the thick gooey-brown liquid’s making him see things that aren’t there. He’s trapped in a mad world of fairgrounds, visuals, and bubbles”. I think this statement pretty much speaks for itself, with Murdoc basically describing that what we hear is 2D’s thoughts in sound form. If that’s not convincing enough, just read the only piece of lyric in the song: “All of which makes me anxious, at times unbearably so”.
10. Rock the House
In the wake of the record’s emotional low-point, we find this surprisingly groovy chunk of funk delight that breaks the darkness and brings back the blissful vibrations found on Re-hash. Del the Funky Homosapien returns with full force and a breezy arrangement of spicy saxophones, sassy panpipes, and a killer sample of John Forté’s “How Many People (Ready to Rock the House?)”.
Lyrically it’s a straight-forward party anthem about letting loose, having a good time, and getting down to a sick beat. It’s also the only track on the LP not to feature 2D’s vocals in some capacity, as Homosapien takes the lead all the way through. Perhaps he’s talking to 2D, trying to cheer him up. Just take a good look at the music video. Del and his cheerleader apes are challenging the band members, trying to stomp Noodle, and throwing dodge balls at 2D. This could very well symbolize the lead singer’s transition from passive depression to active optimism. The tune is a much-needed bright light at the end of a long, dark tunnel. Maybe things will get better from now on. I mean, how can you possibly stay depressed after listening to this ray of sunshine?
Just as you thought you couldn’t get any happier, around comes this sprawling blast of feel-good energy and lightens up the mood of the entire record, even more so than Rock The House. The messy arrangement of twinkling keyboards and wobbling sound effects creates the foundation for a sugar-sweet groove that feels like the result of a kid going wild in a candy store.
There is also a remix of the song, produced by Damien Mendis and Stuart Bradbury, featuring a considerably more uptempo version of the track, which in my humble opinion is infinitely better than the original cut. The instrumentation just feels more complete and alive, kicking the whole effect of tune up a notch. But no matter which mix you prefer, the core message remains the same, as 2D sings about “buying LED Nike shoes” in an attempt to keep up with a world that is “spinning too fast” for him to follow. A sharp distinction is being here between the past, the present and the future.
The title of the track is very clearly a reference to the transitional period between the 20th century and the 21st century. A time when the world saw a huge boom in technology unlike ever before. 2D is once again feeling the pressure coming down on him (from the music industry, it appears), and he is desperate to leave the past behind and head towards the future. But at the same time, he’s afraid of what the future might have in store for him, so the glowing 90’s Nike shoes that he mentions could simply be his way of holding on to happy times long gone (“To keep myself tethered to the days I try to lose”).
In the process of not wanting to move forward, but also not wanting to let go of the past, he has completely forgotten how to live in the present. He then continues by singing about an advice he was given by his mother (“My mama said to slow down”), who wants him to live in the moment instead of worrying about things that has already happened, as well as events that may or may not occur from this point on (“You should make your own shoes”). Finally, she tells him to get back to his happy place. The place where we found him at the beginning of the record (“Start dancing to the music of Gorillaz in a happy mood”).
He has lost his passion and drive, feeling unable to adjust to the rapid change that is taking place all around him. Everything has been sanitized and polished, like the cool shoeshine that Noodle is talking about in the chorus, which bothers him. The second verse goes on to describe a “monkey in the jungle”, who is “caught up in a conflict between its brain and its tail”; presumably alluding to his own state of confusion in the middle of this concrete jungle known as the modern civilization. Could he be chronicling his experience of moving to the city with his band to try and “make it big”? And if so, does this city represent
Finally, he comes to the conclusion that time will eventually wash everything away (“time’s elimination”). The sorrow, the despair, the craziness. Suddenly, he gets a revelation. This is what his music has been about all along! His struggle to find meaning and beauty in the age of chaos. “Please repeat the message, it’s the music that we choose”, as he so eloquently puts it. I’m starting to think that this record is really about self-discovery and finding one’s purpose in life. More specifically, the identity of an artist and the direction of a band.
12. Latin Simone (Que Pasa Contigo)
This salsa-flavored latin composition is swept in classic mariachi instrumentation. Sexy, exotic horns spice up the usual hip-hop drum beat, and the melodica makes a strong comeback, playing nicely alongside the blazing saxophone. The lyrics are also written in Spanish, and if you care to actually translate any of it, you will find that it makes perfect sense in context of the previous track. The first four lines read as follows: “Let it go, if you want to continue. Go out, illuminate your life. The whole sky is crushing you. Illuminate that love, before it goes away”.
Do you get the same picture as me? A mariachi orchestra playing for 2D, trying to cheer him up? If the answer is yes, I don’t think you and I are too far from the point here, which is to use your talents while you still can. While the magic is still intact. 2D may not be the most self-composed frontman in the history of music, but he sure has a knack for songwriting, as we’ve heard on the past 11 tracks. “Something always saddens you, even when everything is alright”, the mariachi singer points out very bluntly, and it’s true.
2D has a very hard time seeing past the grey clouds of his hurricane mind, when in reality all his problems are self-imposed. Remember how I claimed he was schizophrenic earlier on? Now I’m not so sure anymore. I think he’s just really good at seeing problems that aren’t there, or that at least don’t have to be as bad as he makes them out to be. Maybe the conventional road to success wasn’t at all like he expected it to be, and maybe it’s making him self-destructive.
Following three attempts to lift himself out of the ditch that he dug himself into, 2D has now receded back into the dark corners of his own mind, where all we find is the sound of a lonely guitar echoing through infinite emptiness. The only other instrument present is a subdued drum pad, which functions almost like a heart rate monitor, perhaps signifying that the narrator is drifting in some kind of dream-like zone between life and death. Did 2D overdose on this “sunshine” that he sang about earlier? Is he dying? Or does it just feel like he is?
Contrary to the falsetto on New Genius (Brother) and Man Research (Clapper), 2D’s voice seems broken and fragile, almost exhausted. Understandably so, since he’s practically put his brain through the grinder for most of the album, beating himself up over his own inability to connect and relate to his surroundings. If we compare the LP to the classic 3-act structure of storytelling, this would probably be the moment right before the climax. The point of self-doubt, where the protagonist is not sure whether to give up or face the problem in front of him. “Starshine never gonna find me”, he rambles with very little hope of making it out alive.
14. Slow Country
We’ve now come to the point in the journey where are our main character has finally come to realize that, in order to overcome (or at least be able to live with) his own anxiety and insecurities, he must first confront the source of his misery; and in this case, it seems very clear that the antagonizing force is none other than the consumeristic nature of the music business itself. The money-hungry industry executives trying to sell you as a product; the people you think you have to please; the constant weight of expectations created by a model that contrasts so sharply with the reason why you wanted to make music in the first place.
“Gotta make money; can’t quite do it […] you won’t get money doing what you love.” – 2D.
The lyrics really speak for themselves, talking about how this person has moved to the big city in pursuit of fulfillment and success, only to find out that the city wants more from him than he ever get from it (“City life calling me, me and my soul”). He’s become jaded by all of it; the pressure; the noise; and despite having achieved what he came for, he feels more empty and lonely than ever (“Can’t stand your loneliness”). He forgot to listen to the advice his mother gave to him in “19-2000”, and now he feels the repercussions. He therefore decides to leave the city in an attempt to reconnect with himself and rekindle the artistic spark that once lived inside of him on the opening track. Maybe his fortune will dwindle along with his fame, but at least his art will be true and real, and he will be happy.
15. M1 A1
Without proper perspective, the album’s closer can be quite perplexing. Taking everything into account, this is the perfect note to go out on. It’s both open-ended and conclusive at the same time. 2D has removed himself from the limelight of attention; away from the turbulent life of 21st-century urban culture. But he still wants his to be heard, so he calls out to the world: “Hello? Is anyone there?”. The future is uncertain, the first chapter of the Gorillaz story is over, but the journey most definitely is not over yet. Or as 2D puts it: “Keep that sound”.