The Inner Workings of Gorillaz’ “Song Machine”

There has never been a band more capable of impeccably blending so many genres of music than Gorillaz. The brainchild of British singer-songwriter Damon Albarn, Gorillaz is a band consisting of animated characters known as 2D, Murdoc, Noodle, and Russell. Their music is a unique blend of hip-hop, pop, alternative rock, and electronic music, which is a reflection on each band member’s diverse backgrounds. They made their debut in 2001 with their self-titled album that contained the acclaimed single “Clint Eastwood”. Their popularity grew exponentially in 2005 with their sophomore album Demon Days, an album that was widely praised for its experimentation and tight production. This trend continued into their third album Plastic Beach in 2010, which had a unifying theme of environmentalism and a ton of awesome features.

After their subsequent album The Fall, Gorillaz went on a 7 year-long hiatus. Many fans were excited when Damon Albarn dropped four tracks in 2017 that would be a part of a brand new album called Humanz. While this album had its high moments (albeit very few), it proved to be the weakest album in Gorillaz’ discography. The features on this album were so scattered and underutilized, a serious step back from the powerful features on Plastic Beach, and the production was too inconsistent for Gorillaz’ own good. The unique lore that served as the backdrop for Gorillaz’ previous albums was not even present; instead, Donald Trump and his presidential election were awkwardly forced into canon, making it seem less like a Gorillaz album and more like a mixtape from Damon Albarn and company. 2018’s The Now Now was more uniform and focused on Damon’s/2D’s individual songwriting, but there weren’t any tracks that stood out from one another and the production was not up to the Gorillaz standard.

Many fans weren’t sure if they’d be excited for more music from Gorillaz, especially considering how pale these last two projects were in comparison to their previous albums. But at the beginning of 2020, Gorillaz announced a new one-of-a-kind project that would be known as Song Machine. This project was different from everything else they released in the way it is formatted. Rather than release an entire album at once, Gorillaz decided to release a brand new song once every couple of weeks in the form of “episodes” or music videos. The first episode is for the song “Momentary Bliss”, which features UK rapper slowthai and punk duo Slaves. The instrumentals are unsettling; there is a twangy guitar string section that plays in the beginning only to be followed by punching chords that are backed by heavy percussion throughout the rest of the track. 2D and slowthai’s lyrics allude to false idols and destiny, which is seen as a “momentary bliss”.

Episode 2 is called “Désolé”, which may be one of the best songs Gorillaz have ever created. There is barely any English sung throughout the track, as 2D sings in French for most of it and guest feature Fatoumata Diawara sings in her native Bambara. Désolé is French for “sorry”, and the lyrics suggest that 2D is trying to apologize to someone he knew for something he did. With a slick guitar line, soulful vocals, a jazzy horn section in the middle, and extremely rich production, this track feels like it was pulled straight from the Demon Days era. Episode 3 is the song “Aries”, a track that has a heavy synth rock feel to it. This is mainly in part due to Peter Hook’s contribution to the production; the guitar line and synth bass that plays throughout echoes loudly of New Order, which basically makes the song feel like a Gorillaz x New Order collaboration. The psychedelic influence on this track fits in perfectly with the music video, where Murdoc injects 2D with a needle containing a substance that causes him to hallucinate.

This vibe continues on into Episode 4, “Friday 13th”. It is much more subdued and is the perfect “stare at your ceiling at 2AM” song. Watching this episode feels like a drug trip as the viewer sees visions of the band members staring directly at them while they travel along a highway. British rapper Octavian also makes an appearance, and he really comes into his own on this track and carries it throughout. Episode 5, “Pac-Man”, is as Gorillaz as Gorillaz gets. The wonky instrumentals are fitting for the track’s overall theme; 2D talks about viewing life as a video game, being lost in his addiction and aimlessly wandering around much like Pac-Man himself. ScHoolboy Q also delivers one of his best features, helping 2D explain to the listener about breaking free from your addiction and coming back to reality.

“Strange Timez”, the sixth episode, is the perfect anthem for the chaotic year known as 2020. Here, the band travels to the moon and is constantly looking down at Earth, watching everything that’s happened this year unfold. 2D mentions the Belarus election and all the disposed PPE washing up as a result of the pandemic, and guest feature Robert Smith sings about constantly spinning around. Between the pandemic, racial injustice, and all of the other negative news happening this year, it’s very easy to lose yourself in the spiral; as the song implies, we are living in strange times indeed. Episode 7 is “The Pink Phantom”, which is perhaps the most depressing song of the bunch. 2D details a failed relationship, where he is doing everything he can to distance himself away from the other person but still sees images of them. This track also features possibly the strangest collaboration of artists, featuring both iconic British popstar Elton John and Atlanta-based rapper 6LACK. However, both these artists compliment each other’s conflicting style very well thanks to the masterful fusion of genres on Gorillaz’ part.

After this episode’s release, Gorillaz announced that all of these tracks would be compiled together in one album: Song Machine, Season 1: Strange Timez. This album has all of the tracks previously mentioned as well as some new ones, and they are certainly of the same caliber as the leading singles. In addition, the remaining songs on this album will also be formatted into episodes. “The Valley of the Pagans”, which is the eighth episode, has a great dynamic range and is the most “pop” track on the album. Beck also has a tremendous feature, and I’m not gonna say anything about the music video because it is too amazing. “The Lost Chord” (which will be released as the ninth episode) is the most soothing and synthwave-inspired track on the album. 2D laments about missing something and trying to get away from everyday stress, presumably drugs of some sort. Leee John also has a great soulful feature on this track, adding a heavy layer of emotion on top of the slick production. “Chalk Tablet Towers” and “Dead Butterflies” are good additions too, and 2D shines the brightest on both of these tracks.

Calling this project an album wouldn’t really seem fair in credit to Gorillaz. They released a bunch of new content in a very long stretch of time in a way that no other artist or band has done – at least, not in the same format. Having these singles labeled as “episodes” gives the overall project as much visual value as the songs themselves. In a way, they feel more than just music videos, but instead are interlocked together to create one big picture (a very obscure one at that). Whatever that message they’re trying to share is, it certainly has a deep meaning attached to it. But make no mistake about it, Gorillaz are back – for real this time. This is exactly the quality and content that many Gorillaz fans have been hoping for since 2010, and Damon Albarn is finally back in the groove of things. This is the best crop of tracks that he has compiled for Gorillaz in a very long time, and it was well worth the wait. But he is not done yet; he has teased yet another album that might be a sequel to Song Machine along with a feature-length film to go with it.

(Cover Photo: The Cosmic Clash)

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