During almost two decades in business, the mightiness of Gorillaz has been its mutability – it’s a pop-rock-hip-hop-free-trade- zone where anyone from Lou Reed to Vince Staples could show up and work a groove. But that’s also been its flaw: While last year’s Humanz brought some fire (notably the Pusha T- Mavis Staples collab “Let Me Out”), it felt more like a streaming algorithm than a coherent album. Mastermind Damon Albarn solves this particular problem on The Now Now, the sixth Gorillaz set since he launched the project, an integrated polyglot pop LP about, fittingly enough, the need for unity in fragmented times.
Formally, it echoes the 2010 fan club giveaway The Fall: radically shortened guest list, written-on-the-road simplicity, songs named for locales (in this case red, blue and otherwise — “Kansas,” “Idaho,” “Magic City,” etc.) The songs are better, though, and they don’t waste too much time on regionalism. “I don’t want this isolation/See the state I’m in now?” Albarn sings on “Humility,” opening with a vintage chilled-out summer jam certified with sugary licks by soul jazz touchstone George Benson. “Lake Zurich” is gleaming ‘80s synth-funk with a spoken word ramble involving a tunnel between Europe and the U.S. “Hollywood,” the sole tag-team showcase, is a buoyant Funkadelic-styled tribute to Tinseltown in all its parti-colored falsity, with house-music vet Jamie Principle commanding “freaky people, clap your hands!,” Snoop Dogg delivering old-school boasts in updated flows, and Albarn playing the baked tourist.
While The Now Now works as a piece, it does lack the sparks that come from the usual Gorillaz mess of ideas and personalities—the upside and downside of all bands, of course, as with most functional democracies. On “One Percent,” Albarn conjures a race of people searching and listening to one another “on the training ground for the new world.” It’s optimistic by his usual gloomy standards, especially compared to the apocalyptic vibe of Humanz. But it’s on point, and a pretty good metaphor for our present now now.