Behind the Cartoon Gorillaz, Damon Albarn Is a Man Alone

Posted June 27, 2018 4:30 p.m. EDT

I confess: I’ve never been able to sustain deep interest in the elaborate fictional universe of Gorillaz, the virtual, cartoon-character band conceived in 1998 by the English songwriter Damon Albarn and the comics artist Jamie Hewlett. Twenty years into Gorillaz’s career, Hewlett’s online visual chronicles have been inventive and fun, but Albarn’s songs have been deeper and more durable. Most often, Albarn’s music has been a counterpoint to the rest of Gorillaz’s presence: melancholy and introverted alongside Hewlett’s antic, allusion-laced animations. And it’s the melancholy that lingers.

Among all of Albarn’s diverse projects — including the Britpop band Blur that made him a star in the 1990s, collaborations with African musicians, and full-scale European and Chinese-influenced operas — Gorillaz became the blockbuster. Its first two albums sold in the millions worldwide, carried by singles like the 2005 track “Feel Good Inc.” Although there have generally been long gaps between Gorillaz studio albums, its sixth one, “The Now Now,” appears just over a year after “Humanz.” The surface of the new songs is glossy and tuneful, with bubbling synthesizers and knowingly retro echoes of the 1970s and ‘80s. Not far underneath it are the deep misgivings that Gorillaz has never exactly hidden.

Gorillaz gives Albarn a flexibility that has turned out to be quite shrewd. The project hands over Albarn’s songs to Hewlett’s imaginary, multiethnic and conveniently ageless band: the brain-damaged English singer and keyboardist (and Albarn surrogate) 2-D, the towering African-American drummer Russel Hobbs, the young female Japanese guitarist Noodle and the roughneck English bassist Murdoc Niccals. (Current Gorillaz lore has Murdoc imprisoned after being framed for drug smuggling; his replacement, to trivia lovers’ delight, is Ace from the Powerpuff Girls’ band). Behind the cartoons, Albarn’s invisible collaborators can easily be swapped in and out, helping Gorillaz update at will and come up with tracks that bridge hip-hop, reggae, rock, pop and electronic dance music. Gorillaz has also welcomed a select roster of featured guest rappers and singers, from Del the Funky Homosapien on its first major hit, “Clint Eastwood,” to the Jamaican dance hall singer Popcaan and the alt-R&B singer Kelela last year on “Humanz.” On “The Now Now,” Snoop Dogg and Jamie Principle rap about temptation and stardom in a song called “Hollywood.”

But there are fewer guests than usual on “The Now Now”; for this album, Albarn stays decisively in the foreground. His main collaborator here is the producer James Ford, from Simian Mobile Disco, and together they surround Albarn’s voice with subliminally nostalgic synthesizers: puffy, rounded, unaggressive tones that provide a cozy backdrop for Albarn’s morose reveries. “Tranz” has a tapping, blipping, squared-off kraut-rock pulse and countermelodies; “Lake Zurich” recalls the stuttering synthesizers of “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five.

Previous Gorillaz albums, like “Demon Days” and “Plastic Beach,” have contemplated recent or impending societal and environmental catastrophes. But “The Now Now” has more private concerns. Through the album, Albarn is a man on his own, lonely and in motion.

He might well be a pop star on and off the road; more than one song places him among the luxuries and seductive unreality of Los Angeles. “Calling the world from isolation,” he sings in the album’s opening song, the ironically upbeat “Humility,” which is laced with breezy George Benson guitar fills; Hewlett set its video on a Los Angeles beach. In “Magic City,” a shimmering processional, Albarn observes, “I filled the canyons with my ego/Look, there’s a billboard on the moon.” And in “Souk Eye,” a plush Latin-electro ballad, he’s in Los Angeles again, pledging “stone love” to someone before noting, “I got to run soon.”

There’s autobiography, or at least a travel diary, in the songs. The titles include not only “Hollywood” but also “Kansas” and “Idaho,” while the credits note that the tracks were demoed in hotels in those places. Plush, majestic major chords waft around Albarn’s voice in “Idaho,” where he seeks the repose of natural beauty but finds “Out there in the wilderness, another bullet hole.”

But on “The Now Now,” distance doesn’t let him escape his regrets. Over a steadfast, trudging beat in “Kansas,” Albarn mourns “the memory of my fall from grace in your eyes,” and vows, “I’m not gonna cry.” He’s even more bereft and apologetic, though cushioned by synthesizers and backing vocals, in “Fire Flies,” a not-quite-waltz (there’s an extra beat) that has him wondering, “Am I losing you?”

Gorillaz’s video escapades offer diversion and cover — and emotional deniability — from troubled thoughts like those, but Albarn’s songs don’t hide them. In the mysterious chemistry of songwriting, the partnership with Hewlett’s visuals has been a reliable catalyst. Behind the cartoon mask, there’s freedom.