For a band that doesn’t physically exist, Gorillaz has done pretty well. The brainchild of Blur frontman Damon Albarn and cartoonist Jamie Hewlett, the four animated musicians who make up Gorillaz are based on gothic punk and manga artwork. That approach might seem like a gimmick—but it’s a gimmick that’s worked. Gorillaz’s last effort, 2005’s Demon Days, sold 2 million copies in the United States and another 4 million around the world.
On Plastic Beach, the band’s third studio release, Gorillaz raps, rants and rhymes its way through a lyrically dissonant concept album. Though these virtual performers frequently espouse ecological responsibility, their latest psychedelic mash-up of various styles is mostly a jumble of random word-slinging and stream of consciousness thoughts.
Several songs admonish listeners to take responsibility for a polluted, post-apocalyptic world. The title track, for example, laments that the ocean has become “a Styrofoam deep-sea landfill,” while “Rhinestone Eyes” tells us that “nature’s corrupted in factories far away.” Manatees, whales, sharks and jellyfish are among the sea creatures mentioned on various tracks, underscoring the impact humankind’s actions have upon other animals. “White Flag” imagines a utopian world that’s full of peace and free from poverty (“No war/No guns/No poor/Just life/Just love”). “Some Kind of Nature” includes this prayer: “Oh, Lord, forgive me/ … We are all dust.” “Broken” mentions “the fall of man” in passing.
“Cloud of Unknowing” is a short, poetic tribute to a budding romance. Similarly romantic sentiments show up on “To Binge” (“I just have to tell that I/Love you so much these days”). “Stylo” highlights perseverance, saying, “Sing yourself out of depression/Rise above all recession.”
Among the biggest content concerns here are the harsh profanities on “Sweepstakes.” Philosophical ramblings about gambling on this song include the f-word and repeated uses of its mother-modified variant.
Rapped lyrics on “Welcome to the World of the Plastic Beach” may include a sexual reference mixed in with other lines that refer to carrying a gun (“‘Cause I’m rollin’/Deep holin’/Click clackin’/Crack-a-lackin’/Full packin'”). “White Flag” promotes peace, but it also denigrates faith (“And don’t bring no religion here, no three kings”), as well as mentioning condoms and sex on a beach. That track also includes the profanities “d‑‑n” and “s‑‑‑.”
Listening to the eclectic mélange of sounds and styles that define Plastic Beach, a couple things become clear. First, Gorillaz’s creators seem genuinely concerned with the fate of Earth and its denizens. When humanity treats everything as disposable garbage, they repeatedly tell us, the environment suffers and we do too.
But you have to sift through a lot of nonsensical gibberish to mine that message. That’s why New York Times music critic Jon Caramanica says the guys behind Gorillaz have gone from being “wacky conceptualists to self-satisfied dilettantes” who provide more sound that substance. Take the four-minute track “Glitter Freeze,” for example. That song’s cryptic lyrics—in their entirety—are: “Where’s north from here?/It was the glitter freeze/Listen/You are a credit/A believer/Ship him far!”
If lyrics like those are opaque, however, a smattering of harsh profanities and sexual references are crystal clear. And they ultimately poison the utopian-minded proceedings on Plastic Beach.