In 1998, Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett cooked up Gorillaz as a knee-jerk reaction to the chiseled boy bands and mawkish mook-rock acts that paraded across the airwaves of MTV. The idea, it would seem, was to create a group that matched the substance of the 'NSYNCs and the Creeds of the world — the joke being, of course, that unlike Justin Timberlake or Scott Stapp, the Gorillaz were actual cartoons.
It was a pretty brilliant concept, but the thing is, it worked, perhaps even too well. Somewhere along the way — whether Albarn and Hewlett liked it or not — Gorillaz became a genuine phenomenon, with hit singles and multiplatinum albums and actual performances, including a sold-out stint at the Apollo Theater and a Grammy duet with Madonna. Here in the U.S., the band's two albums (2001's self-titled debut and 2005's Demon Days) outsold Albarn's entire Blur catalog and did so by a large margin. It is not a stretch to say that Gorillaz is the most successful project either man has ever been involved in, at least when it comes to the bottom line.
But throughout all the success, one question has remained unanswered: What are we supposed to make of Gorillaz? Were they a side project? A piss-take? Or — dare I say it — an actual band? Sometimes, it was difficult to tell, and with each collaborator Albarn wheeled into the studio, or each high-gloss video Hewlett unveiled, things became even muddier. But now, with their third album, Plastic Beach (which hits stores Tuesday), we finally have our answer: Gorillaz are very much an actual band, because only actual bands can make concept albums this half-baked, this hazy or this self-aggrandizing. It is what actual bands are supposed to do, especially after they've sold millions of albums and become international sensations. Plastic Beach is exactly the kind of album bands make when they feel they've earned the right to do so. There's an air of entitlement to it, and entitlement is perhaps the most human quality of all.
Loosely staged on a metaphorical island in the South Pacific (it's made up entirely of "detritus, debris and [the] washed-up remnants of humanity," according to an accompanying press release), loping along over the course of 16 tracks and ladled with more guest stars than a charity single, Beach is Gorillaz gone bananas. No idea is left unexplored, no beat unused. The thing is, they've done all this before — the concept, the length, the cameos — but this time around, they're just doing more of it. All of it.
For the first time, Albarn serves as the sole producer, something that's readily apparent when you hear the trilling instrumentation of the National Orchestra for Arabic Music (on "White Flag") or the walloping oomph of the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble (on a pair of tunes: "Welcome to the World of Plastic Beach" and "Sweepstakes," both of which also feature cameos by Snoop Dogg and Mos Def, respectively, because, hey, why not?). Brevity has never exactly been his strong suit — check the running time of any Blur album for proof of that — but here, without someone like Danger Mouse or Dan the Automator to reel in his aspirations, things tend to get a bit, well, long-winded. While Albarn might be bursting with good ideas, Beach makes it pretty clear that even the best brains need a little editing every once in a while.
This is not to say that there aren't genuinely great moments on the album too. "White Flag" kicks off a terrific six-song run that includes the spacey "Rhinestone Eyes," first single "Stylo," the bumping "Superfast Jellyfish" and the electro-oddity "Glitter Freeze," which gets an assist from the Fall's Mark E. Smith. It's just that, as the clanging electronics of "Freeze" fade away, there are still eight songs left on the album — darn near an eternity. So we get some filler, including a semi-spoken-word number from Lou Reed ("Some Kind of Nature") and some standouts ("Melancholy Hill," a pretty tune featuring — thankfully — just Albarn), and then the whole thing is over, and it's not until you go back and listen again that you realize, "Whoa, I totally missed the song that features 50 percent of the Clash." And that's not an easy thing to do.
Far be it from me to criticize an album for being too long, but that's precisely the problem here. Too many guests, too many big ideas, too few strokes of the editor's pen (or Pro Tool, or whatever). There are at least three records of varying quality within Plastic Beach, and Albarn decided to put them all out at once. Because, hey, he's earned it. The Gorillaz have earned it. There's a reason Josie and the Pussycats never released an album like this.
And it bears mention here that my opinion of Beach is definitely in the minority, especially considering the luminous praise other critics have heaped on it already. But perhaps that's just more proof that the Gorillaz really are an actual band: No cartoon could pull off something this ballsy, could convince so many to sift through so much. That's ego, that's swagger, that's hubris — and all those things are pretty human qualities too. For better or worse.
Questions? Concerns? Hit me up at BTTS@MTVStaff.com.