LIST: Top Five on Gorillaz' Plastic Beach

Okay, so Plastic Beach isn't a movie (yet! ...wishful thinking) but this is under the "Lists" category so... loophole! Hm, "Loophole" could be a cool name were I ever by some means inducted into the Gorillaz crew. Anyway.

Not being a music critic, which hopefully won't make for pedestrian descriptions of why I adore these tunes, or harboring any music-making aspirations (although learning to pick up a storm on the banjo would be sweet) I'm not quite so jaded to the recording arts world. Due to my noggin's hardwiring to cinema, even the best flicks I see anymore cannot avoid technical examination whereas melodic, aural offerings can still accomplish 100% of their goals if they land favorably.

Interestingly, the album could almost be reviewed as if it were film. In fact, I'd maim to see a film - told almost entirely through visuals and music, spanning vast and varying landscapes of cinematic methods from highly stylized live action and colorful rotoscoping to cel animation and stop motion - about the Gorillaz' story thus far (and beyond, natch). We would begin with the bold yet innocent funk of the self-titled 2001 album before quickly moving in to apocalyptic Demon Days territory. Then, once the fire has spewed forth from the monkey's head to mute the happy folk, we would venture to - where else? - the Plastic Beach.

Wait, where was I? Oh. 'Is an album... blah blah blah... if it were a film'. Right! So, Birdie (whose 'rillaz - or, if you will, rilla-dillaz - moniker I imagine would simply be "Birdie") and I have had a handful of discussions regarding the continuing story of this animated band. These discussions have not been too specific regarding whys and wherefores (stuff like Noodle dying and Murdoc building a cyborg version of her before kidnapping 2D and... uh... yeah), but have orbited more around concepts and ideas. See, if you told me Roger Waters was just compiling a bunch of random songs in The Wall (or most any if not all of his albums to follow, for that matter), you'd have some serious eyebrow raising coming your way courtesy yours truly. What's that you say now? Billie Joe Armstrong was just using the term "Jesus of Suburbia" repeatedly in American Idiot for giggles? Phew, these eyebrows are gonna need a Crunk!!! Energy Drink after this barrage of nonsense (and that link isn't a sponsorship thing, although that'd be great... Crunk is the nectar of Hera and y'all better recognize). The tanky, blurred and British über-duo of Jamie Hewlett and Damon Albarn's offerings, though? Please, be free to take 'em as you will. One of our subject matter's many beauties is an openness to being interpreted however each particular audience member chooses. Do you think the "Glitter Freeze" is outer space? Word. Oh, it's a metaphor for a technology and internet-dominated lifestyle? Sure, sure. Well, that dude over there told me it's just a groovy butt-wiggler and he's not too worried about deeper meaning. That's fine, too.

Although I always wind up adoring the tunage, I typically take a little while to warm up to each new Gorillaz outing. So far they've been quite distinct from one another, to the point where I was actually rather underwhelmed with both Demon Days and Plastic Beach upon initial run-throughs because they didn't represent the Gorillaz I was already familiar with. Same reason I, embarrassingly enough, thought Kill Bill Vol. 2 was somewhat of a disappointment at first, or how I gave up on the Yeah Yeah Yeahs after listening to It's Blitz (although that album is still more or less a smelly pile of giraffe diapers so... bad example, perhaps... but after the unforgiving excellence of Fever to Tell and the almost Metric-esque sweetness of Show Your Bones - and that's not to mention the EPs - yeah, yeah, no). That said, something particularly unique about this latest album is how, at first, the songs seem to meld together. It's a 16-piece cluster of mellow-sauce slowly rolling through coolsville. After third and fourth replays it grew on me in a big way. Listening now places me directly in the realm of the proverbial title retreat - in different, specific spots depending on what track is playing. It fascinates me, actually, to listen back on 2005's Demon Days and realize how similar to the 2001 album it actually is. Simultaneously, Demon Days almost teases what would come in 2010, making for an ideal connector betwixt two masterpieces and, really, being rather a masterpiece itself.

I've taken a while to formulate this list. Some days it's looked almost entirely different and I can only hope a week after I publish this I don't look back and think "No way, Rhinestone Eyes is way better than White Flag!". Initially, Welcome to the World of the Plastic Beach with Snoop Dogg - arguably the most accessible track to be found - was connecting with me the most. Now it's struggling to maintain honorable mention status. That's not to say I've changed my positive opinion of it, though. Though Some Kind of Nature featuring Lou Reed did take longer than the rest to find footing and Sweepstakes, in spite of Mos Def, has lost ground, I think every Plastic Beach track is very, very good if not fantastically stellar. Overall I'd have to place the album as Gorillaz' best and perhaps even the best thing either Hewlett or Albarn has worked on. Each second of runtime seems intricately pondered and flows with the best of them, often redefining the very essence of "flow". Fittingly, it is without question an album for the what-I'd-bring-if-I-were-marooned-on-a-desert-isle list.

Runners-up for this list (oh, yeah... so this post isn't just me fellating an uncommonly superb melting pot of pop-rock, techno and hip-hop with a blockade of text), simply because I wouldn't want to leave them out entirely, are the epic Glitter Freeze, the epilogistic Pirate Jet (reminds me of Pink Floyd's Outside the Wall), On Melancholy Hill (the album's Feel Good, Inc. or 19-2000 - always makes me think of David Bowie's Heroes during its intro) and, why not, Stylo (a groove-tacular, partially improvised ditty featuring Mos Def and Bobby Womack - an intriguing combo to me since I think Def is a shoe-in to star should a film ever be made about Womack). Really, I could list every single track and what makes them great. Hell, if I wanted to I could put out a much more artistic and even existential article on the subject... but you should just check out the album for yourself and revel in the awesomenosity. It's music that, to oversimplify, redefines your being as it massages your eardrums. It's music that enhances life, teleporting it to nearly unfathomable, imaginary realms.

Sure, out of curiosity I've taken a gander at a few Wikipedia and Song Meanings pages for these tunes, but what follows are my own personal reflections. I've tried to avoid influence from outside opinion and fact here, instead taking those nuggets as side-notes, in effort to present an entirely personal list. And, finally, here we go...

5. White Flag (ft. Bashy, Kano & the Lebanese Nat'l Orchestra for Oriental Arabic Music)

Look, respect the island; no stealing
And don't bring religion here; no three kings
It's great and we ain't leaving
We come in peace, sing
White flag? White flag

Swag though Snoop Dogg's introductory track may be, White Flag most effectively welcomes us to the new world. We venture with Bashy and Kano on a voyage of discovery as they detail what they've gleaned of their destination to sounds of a mijwiz conjuring notions of a pilgrimage.

I get visuals of two rag-tag compadres sailing forth on a barely respectable dingy (perhaps even a raft crudely fashioned from felled trees), maintaining valiance as best they can. The two have no target, merely trajectory from a subpar society they escaped. Without specific aim, they are presented sanctuary in the form of the Plastic Beach. With this manifestation they go nuts like cartoon wolves ogling scantily clad babes and engage in conversation regarding what the place is all about before ultimately agreeing to cruise in bearing a peace symbol.

Basically, we learn how much of a paradise our new surroundings appear to be. Until this it's unclear (and, really, remains purposefully ambiguous even beyond this optimistic track) whether the man-made state of the island is to be seen as a positive. Turns out it's a crime-free, religion-free Utopia.

So, does our endearing duo have false hopes? Is their grass always greener, or is this truly their ideal environment? Even More's Utopia had its problems. My take: these two blokes are spot-on, and they have truly found "the place to be". But then, it really depends on your own interpretation.

4. Empire Ants (ft. Little Dragon)

Little memories... marching on
Your little feet... working the machine
Will it spin? Will it soar?
My little dream... working the machine

I mentioned above that Pirate Jet calls forth thoughts of Pink Floyd's Outside the Wall - the soft aftermath of The Wall's explosive The Trial. Well, if Pirate Jet is The Wall, Empire Ants is The Dark Side of the Moon. Consider Breathe in the Air's Run, rabbit, run portion or the sun is the same in a relative way stretch in Time compared to this: The sun has come again to hold you/Sailing out the doldrums of the week, or this: Where the emptiness we leave behind on warm air rising/Those are the shadows far away.

To oversimplify: we toil endlessly to clear monthly high-jumps, constantly dreaming of what's next once we graduate. When you're through scooping pooch poop or filing inane paperwork, what will that next rung be, anyway? Artistic endeavor? A kush life of luxury? Well, realistically, no - just more toiling. If you're lucky you'll climb from burger flipper to chief chili-fry maker. Really, this song could also easily be compared to Welcome to the Machine from Floyd's Wish You Were Here. What did you dream? It's alright, we told you what to dream.

Now, however, something else is here to hold you. The empire is crumbling as its middle children flee - like Bashy and Kano in White Flag - and find the Plastic Beach. The song lures us, reminding of the hamster wheels that are our existences.

As for the music itself, its paced, melancholy build entrances before Little Dragon's synth-assisted segment carries away like a schooner full of inflated whoopie cushions floating on A Pillow of Winds.

3. Plastic Beach (ft. Mick Jones & Paul Simonon)

It's a Casio on a plastic beach
It's a styrofoam deep-sea landfill
It's sort of made a computer speech
It's a Casio on a plastic beach

For as simple and almost minimalist as this one is, it carries an engaged subconscious. Sparse lyrical variety imbues polysemy but the chorus treads broad, providing more to ponder than many of its peers. Those forbearing peers do, however, help inform what may have otherwise been aimless (though pleasantly so).

Just what does this Casio represent? In spite of a relatively upbeat tone, the song seems littered with despair, and this Casio exists as a glimmer of hope. The image in my mind is, rather straight-forwardly, a cheap keyboard, alone on a stretch of miniscule, ductile shards - or, plastic sand. Is this keyboard the only object to survive the sea's dull grind - a grind that rendered its fellow man-made products into the artificial bed on which it rests? One could even say the Casio is us. Simple, stranded... but capable of beautiful acts so long as our chins are up.

Until this point our cast of characters, primarily lead singer 2D (oft-credited as "the idiot", making him intriguingly more vulnerable than most musical frontmen), have been reveling in an accomodating Shangri-la of all-around easy living... but now the enigmatic island is a barren landscape of waste. The very use of the term "landfill" is probably the closest to a subversion of paradise to be found on the album, as, typically, outlooks are kept ambiguous. Albarn himself has gone on record suggesting all the unnatural aspects of our human society that have been popularly scorned in recent years aren't quite as abominable as they have been accused of being.

Now that 2D seems to lean more introspectively, though (following what could be considered the climax of a certain subplot as will be touched on with the next track's entry), he is seeing the beach for what it is physically as opposed to what it represents.

2. To Binge (ft. Little Dragon)

I'm caught again in the mystery

You're by my side, but are you still with me?
The answer's somewhere deep in it
I'm sorry that you're feeling it
But I just have to tell you that I love you so much these days

Amidst Plastic Beach's revelrous abandon and social commentary surges an undercurrent of unrequited love. After all, an island of bliss is but murk and void without love, so even with his idealized surroundings, 2D is preoccupied with desperate, amorous feelings for one who does not give as she gets. Much of this relationship is suggested in tracks such as Rhinestone Eyes (which, along with open-ended opinions of artifice and industry, introduces romantic allure) and Broken (a contemplation on the undermining of genuine connection through desire for instant gratification and, out of specific subsequence, the unconscious crutch of internet and television).

2D's relationship (that some may presume is with Noodle though I'm not so sure...) comes to a head here, only to be uncertainly lamented with the following Cloud of Unknowing. There is an ultimatum in place. Each party searches for rescue but through different means. Bitter end is in sight if those means don't meet at some compromise.

I'm sure the beach has crucial significance in these characters' mental dwellings (it's even strongly suggested by the very title To Binge). I'm half-inclined to suggest the beach a narcotic, but that would be all too easy. Though in a month or so once I've figured my take on the correlation I'll surely re-read this and be embarrassed for not yet having "gotten it"... but for now I'm truly okay in the dark. I'm placed more in 2D's conflicted shoes, navigating emotional mire. Besides, if I had it all worked out, what fun would be left? Well, okay, lots of fun... but y'know.

In step with what is almost a motif of contradictory lyrics and tones, the anxious and depressing verbal content is accompanied by the album's most relaxing sound. It actually feels like something you'd hear from a grass-skirted house band at a resort on Waikiki's shores while sipping las luces de la Habana from a halved coconut through an obscenely frilled-out straw. And Little Dragon. Oh, Little Dragon. Leader of the Swedish-Japanese electro-lounge group, Yukimi Nagano, gently caressed us with Empire Ants and now toys with our affections for her smooth-as-melted-margarine vocals. I, along with many others, I'm sure, can thank Plastic Beach for introducing me to the talent, whose own albums Little Dragon and Machine Dreams are as chill as a popsicle-popping penguin cryogenically preserved in 1982.

To Binge essentially closes the album, as I consider the one-two combo of Cloud of Unknowing and Pirate Jet to be epilogue, and what a close it is. Now, to close out this list...

1. Superfast Jellyfish (ft. Gruff Rhys & De La Soul)

Look, it comes with a toy
Hehe, I like that
I want a number four, a number six
And throw in a plastic donut
Just enjoy the gritty crunch
It tastes just like chicken

I get a feeling the highly quotable and hilarious Gruff Rhys (of Super Furry Animals) and De La Soul (who also featured on Feel Good, Inc.) represent here the same pair who arrived 'neath that White Flag after having acclimated further to the Plastic Beach. Their days just aren't complete, though, without a Superfast Jellyfish - delicious and piping hot in only three microwave minutes!

This whacky tune's message (which smacks of an excerpt from The Who Sell Out) could be read as a bemused "Ew, capitalism". Or, more intricately, it could be a spiteful "Yuck, haphazardly produced Top 40 'music'". For being just shy of three minutes, it has enough layers to be heard different ways with almost every listen. It has a blast with its subjects and with this in mind, I prefer to take it as a couple of dudes finding guilt-free delectation in something that isn't necessarily a zenith of craftsmanship. With this preference to set aside more specific and broadly accepted meanings, I suppose I'm right there with our characters, taking giddy delight in something without needing to fully explore its makeup.

Occasionally I get my silly off self-deprecatingly flaunting vices like Kurt Wimmer's Ultraviolet or Ke$ha (a recent infatuation... Hungover, Dinosaur, Party at a Rich Dude's House... mega-yum)... or even, as with the microwaveable medusozoa in question, my undying adoration of Aunt Jemima's sadly discontinued sausage breakfast burrito. I recognize how surface-level and arguably unhealthy (and, in the case of the burrito, emblazoned with an uncomfortably narrow-minded choice of mascot) these are, but I love 'em anyway. Making that love more fun is the rush I get from knowing it's foolish but diving in anyway.

In a way I feel Superfast Jellyfish is trying to say, "Enjoy your fast food... your cheap toys... the small things! If they happen to wind up on your plate, make the most of them because there ain't no changing the fact that their production lines are gonna keep on trucking (your little feet...). Going against the grain with a sour scowl will only make a less happy person out of you."

There's nothing wrong with a little vice. "Anti-" mentalities are not the way. It should simply be kept in mind that moderation is key. 'Course, I've been disobeying that idea a bit... what with Plastic Beach on loop practically ad nauseam for the past week or so. Don't waste time!