Song Machine: Season One is the collaborative super project Gorillaz have been trying to achieve for years.


Credit: Jamie Hewlett / Gorillaz / Parlophone

Verdict: a nuanced, diverse introspection that seeks the humanity we’re all in need of.

It’s a 9.0/10 folks! That means we have another Album of the Year 2020 contender.

Recently, within the hellscape Orwellian-cum-Dante nightmare world we’ve found ourselves in, I’ve rediscovered a long-forgotten joy: the joy of a truly great Gorillaz album. Good lord, it’s been a long time since we had a truly great Gorillaz album.

Humanz came close in 2017, but it’s never been one I’ve wanted to revisit. It struggled with a lack of affirmation and throwing too many ideas at the wall. 2018’s The Now-Now was fun and breezy, but it ended up being too lighthearted to leave a mark. And it feels like Albarn and Co are well aware of their virtual band project being in need of changing their approach.

A shake-up was clearly in order, the verdict being that a new direction was needed. On their earlier stuff, they expressed personal melancholia through semi-dystopian concept albums with bold narratives. They seemed to dissect the times, anxious to address the problems they saw in the world. Here, however, the form is looser: the record is drawn together by the humanity of its voices and its emotions.

Specifically, the emotions of the wildly diverse cast of features. Song Machine feels like a bunch of artists hitting the studio to get shit off their chests, under the shadow of the strange times we find ourselves in (hence the name, ho ho ho). Elton John is on here singing of heartache for a failed relationship, Robert Smith opens the record expressing anxiety over the ever-spiraling whirlwind this world sinks deeper into, whilst Fatouma Diawara and Albarn sing of estrangement and mental loneliness. Talk about a record to address the times, huh.

Where before the draw was its story, this is a Gorillaz album that sells itself on its personal credentials. More interesting, however, is how its been released. Ever keen to offer a twist on music industry norms, almost every track has been dropped as a single over the course of this year, accompanied by videos and an immersive website. It’s the kind of audio-visual experience the concept of a cartoon band was made to own.

It may well be ‘Season 1’ of this new era for Gorillaz, but it feels far from being the first part of an already formed project. The record evolves enough on its run through alone, smoothly blending modern hip hop beats with bluesier rhythms and throwing in hints of everything from new wave to solid alternative rock. This is a record only confined by its track listing; where Season 2 will take them feels entirely fluid at this point.

“‘Aries’ [is] a tune [that] joins the long history of Gorillaz’s penchant for making melancholic anthems.”

Exciting as the future is, what we’ve been given on this first installment excels in almost every moment. Each artist feels like a worthwhile contribution, with Kano’s fantastic verse alone on ‘Dead Butterflies’ being some of his best material in years. ‘Pac-Man’ is such a classic Gorillaz tune – quirky, grubby instrumentation with plenty of synths, and then ScHoolboy Q’s hard-knock delivery coming in on the second half like a sledgehammer. And holy smokes, ‘Valley Of The Pagans’ is just such a straight-up bop; Beck’s collaboration with Gorillaz is a dream come true, with anti-Hollywood lyrics that feel right on cue for both artists.

What a joy it is to hear Peter Hook’s mastery of the bass and Mercury prize nominee Georgia’s drumming talents put on full display here too on ‘Aries’, a tune which joins the long history of Gorillaz’s penchant for making melancholic anthems. It’s catchy, it’s honest and it gets under your skin in an instant; without question, it’s one of my favourite songs released this year.

So many moments of genius on this record creep up on you with further listens. The band and its producers have achieved such a deftness with their delivery that I found myself reveling in its subtle sonic touches which only reveal themselves gradually. I can’t emphasise enough how much of a rewarding listen this is.

As the album closes out, having gone through a therapeutic diagnosis of the state our collective conscious is in at the moment, Slaves and Slowthai come in to shout messages of self-love in the most beautifully blunt way on ‘Momentary Bliss’. It feels like such a resolution on this record, a closing thought that leaves you upbeat and positive against some of its tougher moments. We may well be in very strange times, but there’s humanity to be found still, and it’s that which’ll get us through.

Song Machine: Season One is the collaborative super project Gorillaz have been trying to achieve for years. It feels like a firm and necessary swing away from their concept album classics toward something that allows them to embrace all the creative freedom their form allows. The wealth of artists old and new here feels so fully utilised, a compelling and rewarding bringing-together of talent who all seem to share a need to come to terms with themselves and where we are in Earth circa 2020.

It’s been a long time since we had a truly good Gorillaz album, yet here it feels like more than just a new record to the ranks of their greatest releases. This is the start of a new era for them, shedding narrative to reveal humanity, and acutely capturing the mental processing so many of us are needing right now.

Score: 9.0/10

Munro Page

Munro Page is a music blogger and former student radio host based in Cardiff, Wales. He likes: thrift stores, cooking and parrots. He dislikes: chain restaurants, the M25 and Simply Red.