When Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett created the virtual band known as Gorillaz in 1998, Albarn took a dangerous risk in escaping the world of British rock with his successful band Blur — and embraced a new sound with a little-established audience. With four uniquely identifiable cartoon characters, Albarn welcomed his fans into a universe of alternative pop, old-school rap and gluttony for addicting melodies.
Unfortunately, in Gorillaz’s latest LP “Cracker Island,” the ingenuity of past projects stretches thinly across this bite-sized window into the band’s latest adventure.
With a handful of iconic names and powerful production value, “Cracker Island” provides a glitzy look into the newest entry in the Gorillaz saga. This time, the four encounter a story of a cult-ridden island with a history of greed and dark secrecy. Ambitious for sure, but the execution is overwhelmingly shallow. The charm and cleverness of classic Gorillaz tunes like “Clint Eastwood” and “Feel Good Inc.” is lost in a sea of short and forgettable tracks that melt into each other with no sense of identity or differentiability.
It would be wrong to discuss “Cracker Island” without first mentioning what this project gets right. For one, Albarn has a clear and consistent vision throughout, with a coherent flow from track to track. The sequence was made with deliberation and each song paired nicely with one another, giving this album more of a cohesive feel than some less thoughtful LPs.
Second, the album certainly had a couple of standout pieces that lent themselves to the inventiveness of the old Gorillaz sound. “Tormenta” with Bad Bunny was the first time the band had tried their hand at a Latin-pop song, and “Skinny Ape” sounded like vintage Albarn all over again, but the album really struggled to find a spot in between the old and a neo-pop wave that invaded songs like “The Tired Influencer” and the titular “Cracker Island.”
And herein lies the issue with this entire project. The work and craftsmanship are there — it’s just more absent of inspiration and innovation than most other Gorillaz albums to date. The feature list is star-studded, with names from Thundercat to Stevie Nicks, but only a few of these powerhouses are even given the chance to stand out in a pretty unaccommodating instrumental backing. Adeleye Omotayo puts on a vocal clinic and Tame Impala melds perfectly into the “Cracker Island” sound, but most other featured artists feel forced or straight-up ignored.
In straddling the line between a fresh new sound and those old Gorillaz ways, Albarn drains the personality from the genre, which makes it incredibly frustrating to imagine what could have been had he used the same knack for an invention he demonstrated earlier in his career with the band. The greatest sin this album commits is just being downright forgettable. The originality that the neo-pop genre offers is ignored, and Albarn defaults to his tried and tested artistic tropes to bog down any interesting aspects of this project.
And that is the crux of all Gorillaz issues. Throughout the album, they are so unbelievably close to something new and exciting but miss the mark nearly every time. They inject tacky lyricism and monotonous choruses into what could have been an electric and psychedelic experience.
“Cracker Island” is a well-made, ambitious yet insufferably boring album. It is missing the heart of Albarn’s past works and suffers immeasurably from it. The four cartoon characters will have to step it up next time in order to actually reinvent themselves — if that’s even what they really want to do.
Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars