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Sunday, July 3, 2022

Music for the end of the world: a Plastic Beach retrospective

Ben Holden explains his love for this Gorillaz album

It’s summer. Exams are done, there are no deadlines to worry about. You have all the time in the world. You jet off to a secluded tropical island, and life is good. Between the afternoon cocktails and the dodgy-sounding nightclub you’re visiting tonight, you find a few hours to relax on the beach. The sand is warm, the water cool, and the gentle soothing sounds of drums fill the air. Suddenly, UK grime artists Bashy and Kano appear from nowhere and start aggressively rapping about environmentalism. Welcome to the world of Plastic Beach.

Plastic Beach is brought to us by Gorillaz, a UK virtual band created by Blur frontman Damon Albarn and artist Jamie Hewlett. For those unfamiliar with the concept of virtual bands, this means that the ‘band’ is fictitious, consisting of animated characters given voices by real life performers. Each member – Murdoc, 2-D, Noodle and Russel – has their own elaborate backstory that would take me more time than I have left in my degree to explain, but it’s a wild story if you’re interested in reading up on it.

After rising to fame with their first two albums, Gorillaz and Demon Days, the band blessed us with the album Plastic Beach. This third outing would release March 3rd, 2010, to commercial success and justified critical acclaim. It’s one I really missed the boat on (I didn’t listen to anything particularly good when I was 9, other than Number 1 by Tinchy Stryder) and only heard recently, but oh my god you guys this album slaps. So, I’m going to put off revision for my rapidly approaching finals to talk about a 12-year-old album. Now that sounds like a great plan. 

Gorillaz albums often have a huge number of collaborators, with Humanz and Song Machine: Season 1 featuring a guest artist on almost every track – the most impressive of which probably being Sir Elton John. Plastic Beach is no different, boasting one of the most eclectic casts I have ever seen. Put the album on shuffle, and you won’t know whether you’re going to be hearing Snoop Dogg, Lou Reed or the Syrian National Orchestra for Arabic Music. With such a massive range of artists and genres on display, you’d be forgiven for expecting the album to be a hodge-podge of half-baked ideas, but the final product is as cohesive as you can hope. The rarer, slower tracks like the beautiful Empire Ants certainly stick out from the more upbeat like Rhinestone Eyes, but this isn’t to say they sound out of place. Balancing so many styles, tempos, and moods is no easy feat, but Albarn and co. have pulled it off spectacularly. 

If someone told me they were going to write a song that starts and ends with the aforementioned Saudi Orchestra, but features Bashy and Kano shouting at each other over instrumentals that occasionally resemble a chain-smoking duck, I’d assume I had awoken in Alice’s Wonderland. And yet, the track White Flag does just that and somehow manages to sound really rather good. And then there’s the wacky Superfast Jellyfish, a hip-hop bop spliced with samples from a breakfast pastry commercial or something? When I close my eyes, I can see the worried looks Albarn almost certainly received from his collaborators when he came up with that one, and yet it just works in the most bizarre possible way.

This makes the songs, for the most part, incredibly versatile, able to induce a wide range of emotions. For me, this is perfectly encapsulated in the marvellous On Melancholy Hill. With a simultaneously cheery and serene electro-beat overlaid with restrained but beautiful vocals and lyrics of loneliness, it’s able to invoke everything from joy, to gloom, to existential dread. It has quickly become one of my all-time favourite songs, and yet I truly lack the words to properly describe the feeling it gives me; whether that’s up to the song itself or my failings as a writer I’ll let you decide. Just know that it’s snuck its way onto almost all of my playlists for one reason or another. 

So, the album sounds outstanding and is musically innovative, but what makes it so pertinent to this day is its environmental message. Plastic Beach discusses issues of pollution and climate change, but (surprisingly, given its name), isn’t quite so preachy as some other recent albums have been (Solar Power by Lorde, I’m looking at you). Starting with more orchestral influences in the introductory Welcome to the World of the Plastic Beach, the album quickly gives way to synth-pop and distorted, occasionally glitchy, vocals on tracks like Stylo and the addictive Some Kind of Nature – another personal favourite. All this tells the story of a world that is becoming more plastic and artificial, reminding us that we really do need to change our habits on a global scale. Of course, if you aren’t in the mood for a crisis, you can largely ignore these themes and just enjoy some bloody good music, but the message is there if you’re willing to look for it. Albarn once likened albums to a “snapshot”, showing “only one moment in time”. Sadly, he seems to have been wrong on this one, because Plastic Beach is still just as relevant now as it was in 2010.

Perfectly demonstrating this is the fact that Albarn stated in 2020 that he has “loads and loads of songs” for a direct sequel. On the one hand, that’s great because if it’s anything like the original then a sequel will sound fantastic. On the other (and much more depressing) hand, it’s a worrying reflection that things haven’t gotten any better. As Albarn said in a 2020 interview with Radio.com: “I’d like to just have an album called Clean Beach, but at the moment it’s still Plastic Beach“. The change that the world so desperately needed even back in 2010 hasn’t come yet, and as a result, the album’s message is, unfortunately, still very relevant. For now though, Plastic Beach serves as a poetic, wonderfully produced and musically brilliant reminder that the world is slowly ending, everything is artificial and no one seems to be doing very much about it at all.

But at least we have a sequel album to look forward to. Every cloud has a silver lining, right?

Image credit: Drew de F Fawkes / CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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