Damon Albarn’s long-running, genre-hopping Gorillaz project has typically taken its time between releases in the past, so it’s reasonable to approach The Now Now—Gorillaz’s sixth proper album and the follow-up to last year’s Humanz—with a measure of skepticism. The last time Gorillaz exhibited such quick turnaround between releases was 2010’s The Fall, which followed that year’s excellent Plastic Beach with a slight, atmospheric collection of songs that Albarn mostly made on his iPad. Thankfully, despite Albarn recently comparing Gorillaz’s latest to that tablet-generated outing, The Now Now feels anything but tossed-off: it’s the most beautiful and melancholic Gorillaz album since Plastic Beach, expanding on that record’s bleary moments in a way that feels truly sublime.
Albarn told UK radio station Radio X earlier this month that the main impetus for The Now Now’s quick turnaround was to supply Gorillaz with more songs for upcoming live gigs—a curious claim on a few levels, primarily since Gorillaz’ nearly two-decade catalog has plenty of crowd-pleasing fire at this point. But The Now Now also sounds like it was made for a big stage; at times, it comes across as a spiritual cousin to Albarn’s 2014 solo LP Everyday Robots, swapping that album’s technophobic lullabies for squishy disco motifs, swaths of synthetic grandeur, and crisp beats to create a similarly hermetic, lonely sonic environment.
And The Now Now is essentially a solo album: a sharp about-face from the guest-laden vibe of Humanz, the album was largely conceived by Albarn, longtime collaborator Remi Kabaka, and Simian Mobile Disco member-cum-super-producer James Ford (Arctic Monkeys, Haim). Blur guitarist Graham Coxon and Atlanta singer Abra pitch in on “Sorcererz” and “Magic City,” respectively; jazz virtuoso George Benson adds guitar and vocals on the wistful tiki-bar pop of “Humility,” while Snoop Dogg and house producer Jamie Principle do their thing on the flashy “Hollywood.” The former serves as the perfect opening salvo, as Albarn’s distant vocals providing overcast skies to its otherwise sunny demeanor, while “Hollywood” comes across as The Now Now’s only true misstep, its dead-eyed excess briefly disrupting the album’s electronic drift.
One glance at The Now Now song titles like “Kansas” and “Idaho” might cause listeners to prepare themselves for a Gorillaz album zeroing in on the red-state rage currently consuming American politics, which would make sense considering that the conceptual bent of Humanz was originally intended to “imagine” what would happen if Donald Trump won the 2016 election. But The Now Now seemingly absconds from engaging with the state of the world in any explicit way. If anything, Albarn dips into the same allusion-heavy retro-futurism that marked Arctic Monkeys’ stunning Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino from earlier this year. Over the cowbell-laden disco of “Lake Zurich,” he imagines a tunnel connecting Zurich and New York, admitting, “I find it hard to share this with anyone/ Because even to me it sounded ridiculous”; in the middle of ruminating on age during “Magic City”‘s weightless thump, he says apropos of nothing, “Look/ There’s a billboard on the moon.”
But lunar-taqueria analogues aside, Albarn expresses the type of beatific exhaustion you’d expect from a world-famous musician who just turned 50 this year after nearly three decades of constant collaboration and gigging around. Over the peppy drum machines and synths of “Tranz” that recall the Demon Days smash “Feel Good, Inc.,” he ruminates on crashing out after another Saturday night out on the town, positing to no one in particular, “Do you turn into your effigy?” Most strikingly, Albarn takes the eerily lush acoustic guitars of “Idaho” to enjoy the splendor of nature on the road, if only for one moment: “Every day I look out of the bus/ Silver linings getting lost.” The moment of optimism, like passing cars on the highway, is somewhat fleeting—a moment of emotional ephemera that makes perfect sense on The Now Now, a record that’s more reflective and human than you’d ever expect from a band of literal cartoons.