Over the last 30 years you’d be hard pressed to find an artist who has equally embraced music that appeals equally to the commercial pop world and the more discerning and eclectic listener. Damon Albarn really is a man for all seasons, a polymorphic, post-modern songwriter with an insatiable creative streak that has seen him find success, primarily in Blur and Gorillaz, but also with a myriad of side projects. Album number six finds Albarn, producer and musician James Ford and assorted collaborators finding a decidedly reflective and melancholic electronic pop streak.
The guest stars are still a key facet of the Gorillaz template but there are only a few in attendance this time around. Snoop Dogg, George Benson and Jamie Principle all make strong contributions but Albarn is clearly the musical eye of the storm. His voice colours every song, draping them in that weary, wistful croon, perfectly suited to the album’s themes of finding solace in a mixed up world, the importance of living in the now in the physical world and the value of the inner soul vs the attraction of the shallow glamour of Hollywood and Instagram. Much of the album was recorded while on the Humanz tour – lyrics and beats composed on time-sapping bus journeys and in indistinguishable hotel rooms, giving The Now Now it’s personal, observational and ruminative quality.
The maudlin sound of much of the album still retains the futuristic gleam that defines the technological and graphic quality of Gorillaz. Synth washes and lush arpeggios, stuttering funk and hip hop beats blend seamlessly with piano and the iconic guitar sound of George Benson as well as subtle appearance from Graham Coxon on Magic City. With a more cohesive and consistent sound, the rewards come from the details – the synthetic folk wash of closer Souk Eye, knowing 80s Depeche Mode synth pop excursions such as Tranz, Idaho’s art pop akin to the latter-day experimentations of Radiohead and the 21st century, low-riding electro-funk grooves that permeate the album.
The Now Now is a deeper than normal listen and a welcome balancing addition to the Gorillaz discography. It’s also, tantalisingly, the closest we’ve come to a new solo record from Albarn.