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‘Cracker Island’ Review: Gorillaz At Their Most Pop-Minded And Fuss-Free
In Depth

‘Cracker Island’ Review: Gorillaz At Their Most Pop-Minded And Fuss-Free

An open-hearted album which sounds a note of hope, ‘Cracker Island’ is a treasure among Gorillaz’s sprawling body of work.

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Gorillaz’s eighth studio album finds Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett’s virtual group ashore on Cracker Island. Are they stranded, or setting out to establish a new civilisation? Hard to tell, precisely, but if Albarn’s lyrics are anything to go by, a reckoning of sorts may have brought them here…

Listen to ‘Cracker Island’ here.

Gorillaz at their most pop-minded and fuss-free Albarn has been teasing a sequel to Gorillaz’ third album, Plastic Beach, since the year 2020. If this is it, then what he once hoped would be called Clean Beach arrives covered in a layer of inner-city grime: as the video for Cracker Island’s title track makes clear, something has gone awry in Gorillaz’s world (when has it not?). 2-D and Noodle are in a Los Angeles hospital, being questioned by police. Empty-eyed Russel Hobbs drools in front of a TV set which, when it’s not broadcasting static, acts as a portal for ghostly apparitions. And Murdoc? Well, he appears to be a life-sucking leader of a cult, able to wither a person by force of his glare alone.

And yet Cracker Island itself is vibrant. If it’s not the optimistic follow-up to Plastic Beach that Albarn would have liked to have written, it certainly finds Gorillaz at their most pop-minded and fuss-free since that record’s release in 2010. Riding Thundercat’s dextrous bass riffs (the LA-based virtuoso also adds a soulful vocal to offset Albarn’s matter-of-fact delivery), Cracker Island’s title track, lifted as its lead single, recalls Demon Days’ DARE in its mix of juddery, low-end grooves and near-falsetto hooks.

Onto a good thing, Gorillaz repeat the trick with New Gold, another slickly turned piece of electro-pop, here fattened out with a lead rap from Bootie Brown (reprising his guest role for the first time since appearing on Demon Days’ Dirty Harry) and a searching chorus from Tame Impala.

“New gold/Fools gold/Everything will disappear,” Albarn observes when he joins in at the song’s end. He seems to be on a quest for something throughout Cracker Island, whose lyrics are awash with loss – of meaning, of faith, of self. Enlisting Stevie Nicks for a duet on Oil is a masterstroke, the Fleetwood Mac sorceress bringing to the midtempo electro ballad decades’ worth of her own well-publicised trials, impossible not to hear in lyrics such as “That’s the place you reach when/You can’t help yourself anymore and the madness come”. Recorded 30 years on from Albarn’s plaintive duet with Stereolab’s Lætitia Sadler on To The End, from Blur’s Parklife album, Oil sees these weathered survivors take stock of their lives with caution: they really have made it.

A note of hope for a world riven by division

As our current obsession with the metaverse suggests, it could have been so very different. And yet, living in a world which spawns endless digital counterparts seems to fill Albarn with ambivalence, even if the very existence of his “virtual group” relies on technology (Jamie Hewlett’s animations continue to set the bar). “It’s a cracked-screen world,” Albarn observes on Tired Influencer. “Just trying to keep my head up/But nothing real anymore/In the world of the tired influencer.” On the downbeat Silent Running, he sings of feeling lost in the digital ether: “Machine-assisted, I disappear/Into a dream you don’t wanna hear/…It feels like I’ve been silent running/Through the infinite pages I scroll out, searching.”

Ennui tipping into despair with the current state of things has been part of Albarn’s worldview since the days of Modern Life Is Rubbish, but whereas back then he felt safer writing observational lyrics from a distance, without risk of revealing too much of himself, Cracker Island is, ultimately, an open-hearted album that, despite the identity play the Gorillaz framework allows for, strikes a tone as confessional as anything on the later, more mature Blur albums – their self-titled record, from 1997, or 1999’s 13 – on which Albarn stepped out as an artist willing to risk something of himself in his work.

On Cracker Island’s maudlin closing song, Possession Island, Albarn brings Beck back into the Gorillaz fold. The two prolific 90s game-changers, so much a product of their respective hometowns (an LA native, Beck’s genre-hopping catalogue is as stylistically sprawling as the city he was born in), previously collaborated on Cracker Island’s predecessor, Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez, the song The Valley Of The Pagans allowing them to have fun sending up the City Of Angels’ promise of dream-fulfilment. Now their voices wind around each other as if clinging on for support: “Where things they don’t exist/And we’re all in this together ’til the end,” they sing over piano and gentle synth washes.

Has Albarn found what he’s searching for? Can he ever truly keep hold of it? What begins in a hospital ends, possibly, with a recovery, Albarn daring to sound a note of hope for a world riven by division.

Looking for more? Find out which Gorillaz tune tops our list of the best 2000s songs.

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