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.
That’s not to say there isn’t still plenty of carefully crafted and piquant detail in this set of songs. Witness how hip-hop jam “Hollywood,” for example, adds a Nine Inch Nails–ish synth volley midway through Snoop Dogg’s guest verse, or the fussy percussive patterns on “Lake Zurich,” including the heaviest use of cowbell this side of Professor Murder. But the sense of stagnant bloat is gone, partly the consequence of a comparative lack of guest features (Snoop’s is one of just three on the record), partly due to Albarn’s apparent go-it-my-own-way-and-quick ethos this time out, which, aside from eventuating in his singing on every track save “Lake Zurich,” an instrumental, finds him including song styles previously outside Gorillaz’ ambit. The album announces the new direction right from the get-go: Afropop-spiced love letter “Humility” cleaves to the kind of direct first-person plea (“I need you in the picture / That’s why I’m calling you”) hardly ever in evidence throughout the Gorillaz oeuvre, and both it and new-wave buzzsaw “Tranz” dispense with the eyeball-rattling bass and rhythmic boom-bap that are perhaps the lone through-lines uniting the band’s motley canon.
The languid hard thud of “Hollywood,” The Now Now’s third cut, returns the affair to terra cognita, what with the rapped verses and stolid, lightly slurred Albarn-sung hook (the official lyrics the band’s publicist sent along claim it’s “Hollywood is vagrant,” but I swear I hear “Hollywood is fragrant”). Even so, the track retains a certain uncluttered sheerness—trad Gorillaz through and through, just pared to a root essence. The same goes for much of what follows, which centers largely on a particular sweet spot not much seen since Gorillaz’ very first album: Call it the deep-space slow jam, roughly one part Sun Ra to three parts Daft Punk.
The Now Now has a kind of creamy middle given over almost entirely to this kind of tune, and saved from sameness by the range of emotional nuance on offer—from the flailing attempt at self-pity avoidance that is “Kansas” (its endlessly repeated refrain: “I’m not gonna cry”) and the clenched-jaw resolve of stony “Sorcererz” to the old-age lament of the climactic “Magic City” (“I filled the canyons with my ego,” Albarn sings, in what definitely doesn’t sound like a boast) and the full-on synth-bass dread of “Fire Flies.” Beyond offering an abundance of satisfying material, the choice obeys a compositional maxim: that the more the songwriter ventures into the new with respect to one element, the more he ought to keep the others predictable, safe, tried and true. With this album, the evident product of a wildly fecund small interval in the life of good Mr. Albarn, a lot has changed, much of it fresh and exciting, some of it in ways that are bound to occasion questioning: Is the future of Gorillaz to be as collaborative as the albums of old, or as singularly focused and streamlined as The Now Now? In devising songs that scratch a familiar itch even as they signal a rupture with the past, Albarn’s likely made fans excited to contemplate the possibilities.