Output-wise, Gorillaz have always worn a kind of Janus face. Beginning life two decades ago as one of Brit-pop wunderkind and Blur frontman Damon Albarn’s many side hustles, the “virtual band” established their contradictory pattern early: Release a major album; release a complementary quickie collection anthologizing outtakes and alternate mixes and abandoned sketches from those sessions; go into hiding. Long intervals of dormancy punctured by this sudden double-drop could drive devotees nuts, but the method has had the desired effect of marking off discrete “phases” of the band’s career. No doubt there is a common thread to everything you’ll find within Gorillaz’ big tent—the mad-science crossbreeding of genres as far afield as punk and gospel, dancehall and classical, being everywhere fused to a taut backbeat borrowed from hip-hop. And yet each pairing created its own self-contained, off-kilter little world.
In this way you had 2001’s self-titled debut and its aide-de-camp, G Sides, all acid astral future-groove in polyglot tongues; 2005’s paranoid Demon Days and its attendant D-Sides; and 2010’s jaunty Day-Glo confection Plastic Beach, along with, this time, an accompanying LP of all new songs written while Albarn and Co. toured the States behind Plastic Beach. Its title, The Fall, could be read as an accidental entendre: The work paled in comparison with the larger release to which it ran sidecar, and in hindsight seems to have ushered in a period of decline; the fully seven years between it and the group’s next effort saw Gorillaz nearly disintegrate amid fractious infighting, and Humanz (2017), when it did come, came off as little more than a Plastic Beach manqué, curiously both limp and turgid, overstuffed but undercooked.
With The Now Now, however, the dark days are over and the script has been proverbially flipped. Where in the past the hustled-out companion piece leaned on the primary document for context, offering maybe the occasional rough gem but mostly only lesser renditions of, or early stabs at, the finished product, the new album presses an effective reset button from the Humanz misfire, stripping things down to a breezy, buoyant essence that might just remind you what was most charming about this cartoon outfit in the first place.
This is perhaps doubly surprising considering that The Now Now was likewise conceived while the band toured in support of the major release and hurried along from there—and knowing that Albarn is not always at his best working on such a compressed timeline. Maybe what we’re witnessing is the abandonment of the old MO and the adoption of a new heading: Though a great deal of the pleasure of earlier Gorillaz albums came by way of the sweated-over, detail-dense compositions—even on 20th listen, it seemed, you’d always find some fine new filigree, a harmony vocal you hadn’t made out before, a series of background blips that it turned out provided their own sly countermelody—Humanz seemed to exhaust all its vital reserves in packing layer upon layer, track after track, perhaps in an attempt to obscure the dearth of sticky tunefulness that ordinarily comes so easily to its principal songwriter. The Now Now corrects course by curtailing the number of elements at play, which has liberated Albarn, or is itself a strategy for revealing his liberation; either way, the work finds his gifts returning in full flower.