Gorillaz' Plastic Beach: A warning for a world in flux

Issue 
Cartoon band Gorillaz comments on the lack of substance in mainstream music. Image: schneeflocke.h11.ru

Review: Plastic Beach
Gorillaz, EMI
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“If you watch MTV for too long, it’s a bit like hell — there’s nothing of substance there”, said Jamie Hewlett, graphic artist and co-creator of “virtual band” Gorillaz, in 2005 . “So we got this idea for a cartoon band, something that would be a comment on that.”

Gorillaz, created in 1998 by Hewlett and former Blur singer Damon Albarn, have been commercially successful, but their thematic roots have been ignored by many. The band features four fictional animated members, with Albarn creating the music and Hewlett the visual graphics.

Gorillaz’ third album, Plastic Beach takes the concept of a feel-good, consumer-driven culture, shiny but devoid of content, to new heights. The album is set in the fictional universe of the Plastic Beach.

The Plastic Beach is artificial to the core, a junkyard dystopia dominated by the shadows of factories, sheets of acid rain and permanent shrouds of smog. It is a place where “the sea is radioactive” and all light is neon.

It depicts a human-made disaster zone where consumerism is fanatical and industrialisation uncurbed — a society much like our own.

The track “Rhinestone Eyes” paints this picture most vividly, portraying the Plastic Beach as a pile of landfill where “nature’s corrupted in factories far away”, and everything that seems natural is revealed as illusory.

Layer upon layer of synthetic chords, bleeps and whirs create a world where plastic people are divorced from the environment and themselves.

Sandwiched between these electronic layers are collaborations with the Syrian National Orchestra for Arabic Music, Lou Reed, De La Soul, and ex-Clash members Paul Simonon and Mick Jones to create a musically diverse album.

“Superfast Jellyfish” takes a sarcastic look at the insatiable nature of contemporary fast food lifestyle, sampling an advertisement that boasts, “this morning, you’ve got time/for a hot, home-cooked breakfast /delicious and piping hot/in only 3 microwave minutes”.

This irony is echoed in the “Pirate Jet”, where Damon Albarn drawls: “It’s all good news now/because we left the taps running/for a hundred years/so drink into the drink/a plastic cup of drink.”

The album bursts with pure pop melodies muddied with a churning undertow of anxiety and decay. It conjures fluorescent images of social and ecological turmoil.

It warns of a world in terminal decline, where “the whole world is crashing down ... falling alcohol empire is here to hold you, rolling out and haunted till it sinks”.

But it speaks of hope too. “Welcome to the World of the Plastic Beach” is a call to action: “The revolution will be televised/and the pollution from the ocean/now with devotion/push peace and keep it in motion/Kids, gather round/Yeah, I need your focus/I know it seems like the world is so hopeless/It’s like wonderland.”

Just as much of science fiction takes an element of present day society, extrapolates from it, exaggerates it and re-contextualises it in an imagined future society in order to comment on the world today, “Plastic Beach” amplifies many common sentiments about environmental decay, the culture of greed and the sense of alienation and anxiety that overshadow contemporary life.