At this time of the year, I invariably find myself lauding the brilliance of Damon Albarn. It’s an annual event that has encompassed the beautifully intimate stories on both his solo album and The Good, The Bad and The Queen’s Merrie Land. This year it’s the turn of Gorillaz again. Despite my love for all things Albarn, to my ears the last couple of Gorillaz albums have felt a bit disjointed. Almost as though the focus had slipped. Pleasingly, Song Machine signals a return to top form. It’s an album that is right up there with Demon Days and Plastic Beach.
But aside from recognising the brilliance of Song Machine, what else can I say here about Gorillaz? They are probably the highest profile, biggest name on this end-of-year list. So many words have been written over the years that I feel I can’t really add anything fresh. The kinda dangerous-yet-charming cartoon personas are still hanging around although, interestingly, their arc seems to be developing into even darker places.
So, a few words. Song Machine is an album that jumps out of the speakers and grabs you instantly. It’s not a slow burner. The impact is instantaneous as the ubiquitous song machine spews out banger after banger. The Valley Of The Pagans, featuring Beck, sounds like it has fallen out of the collaborator’s 1999 dancefloor-filling album, Midnite Vultures. It is pounding disco with the hookiest of choruses and when Beck sings “it’s time to party”, you know he’s talking sense. Aries, sounds like New Order, which is never a bad thing. It’s also unsurprising given that the prominent bass line is provided by one Peter Hook. Desole, featuring Fatoumata Diawara, is a sumptuous, melodic string and brass driven tune.
The highlight, however, is the incredible Momentary Bliss. The surf guitar line is delightful, then you are gripped by the sudden switch to Slowthai’s rap which leads to a chanted, football terrace type chorus. It is melody and subtlety. It is filth and fury. It shouldn’t work, but it does. It is a unique tune, one like no other in 2020.
I’d like to close this short piece by writing a wee bit about Tony Allen. Tony was a giant of music. Brian Eno called him the best drummer in the world. Damon Albarn, with whom Tony collaborated often over the past twenty years, described him as having “magic in his feet and hands, joy in his heart, and genius in his mind”.
As always, he collaborated with Damon on Song Machine on the track How Far?. Have a listen to it. Listen to just the first twenty seconds and hear that skipping hi-hat and complex pattern that serves Skepta’s rap perfectly.
I will remember Tony Allen from the two occasions I saw him live drumming with The Good, The Bad and The Queen. He looked super cool in his shades and pork pie hat. If you just watched him, the entire process looked effortless. But then you listened. Wow. His greatest collaboration was with Fela Kuti, who described his playing as “like having four drummers”.
Tony sadly passed away in April this year and leaves an incredible body of work behind. I’m sure he would have looked really proudly on Song Machine.