Stop me if you’ve heard this one: Damon Albarn’s grimy cartoon hip-pop, trap-dub ensemble welcomes left-of-center guests to sing, shout, rap, and soar across an album’s worth of molten-lava-lamp-hot quirk-funk laced with Bowiesque, Anglophiled melodic twists. That element of worldly surprise and Brit-boxed eccentricity has lasted through every Gorillaz album since their 2001 start, with Del the Funky Homosapien, Lou Reed, Beck, Ibrahim Ferrer, De La Soul, Elton John, Snoop Dogg, Robert Smith, and many more making their presence felt in an Albarn-composed universe.
That’s still the case with Gorillaz’s LA-inspired new recording Cracker Island as its guest list includes old friends (including De La Soul on bonus track “Crocadillaz” and Bootie Brown on the Tame Impala–featuring album cut “New Gold”) and new, most notably including Bad Bunny and Stevie Nicks. But now the eccentric is the expected, and the faux band’s clunky kitchen-sink musicality is more commonly heard now (on Bad Bunny records, for one) likely inspiring its production (by Greg Kurstin, no less) to tamp down and dampen some of its kinkier oddities in favor of symmetry and sleekness.
In a weird way, Kurstin’s evenhandedness has forced Albarn’s musical outfit to think like a band and play to the composer’s most haunting (and often Blur-like) melodies in some time, such as the supple “Silent Running,” the sleepy “New Gold,” and the sublime “Skinny Ape.” When Stevie Nicks steps up to the mic and growls, rasps, and purrs her way through “Oil,” it’s as if Albarn channeled Lindsay Buckingham’s sloe-gin-soaked soul circa Fleetwood Mac’s 1975 White Album.
Not enough of Cracker Island holds the sort of charm or intrigue that its best tracks do. “The Tired Influencer” is tired. Beck and Thundercat appear within, but I couldn’t tell you what they did or what their songs were five minutes after the album ended. Some of the thrills and chills of a Gorillaz record (beyond those aforementioned beautifully sad melodies) are gone—until Bad Bunny shows up, that is. The eclecto-electro Puerto Rican rapper and vocalist brings mighty muskiness and jazzy éclat to the Chic dub-disco “Tormenta” and makes you wonder how the collaboration between band and Bunny would work if reversed.
Any Gorillaz record is better than no Gorillaz record, that’s a given. It’s just fascinating that the brightest moments of Cracker Island are its shadiest, the ones featuring Albarn at his chilled out and Blur-iest sonorous best.