It’s been twenty years since Gorillaz’ first commercial release, Tomorrow Comes Today, an EP highlighted by its ominous-yet-funky title track. Damon Albarn and his collaborators have since released seven studio albums, with “Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez” being the latest off the assembly line. The latest helping of seventeen highly synergic songs were composed, produced, and recorded in strange times indeed — almost exclusively during the coronavirus lockdown. Initially a sequence of isolated singles released on a monthly basis, Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez is an unexpected galaxy of sound that bounces around genres, styles and even languages. Somewhat surprisingly for an album composed partially of stand-alone singles, no one song really rises above the others and blows you away. Ultimately, Gorillaz’ seventh studio album displays a rich enough sound to leave the listener satisfied, if not a little disoriented. But one thing is crystal clear — Gorillaz have mutated and evolved in unanticipated and fascinating ways.
One thing that stands out about Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez is its production. Albarn clearly works to incorporate a wide variety of musical perspectives, as evidenced by the diverse features list and even a production assist from Mike WiLL Made It on the album’s ninth track. This leads to a diverse soundscape throughout the album, with plenty of new and surprising sounds and styles complementing some of the more traditional Gorillaz building blocks. Yes, there are still some classic elements of early Gorillaz, such as funky drum and bass lines, trippy noises, and a healthy mix of electronic and organic sounds. Still, though, the many sections, distinct pop producing, and hook oriented autotune are concepts that were previously foreign to Gorillaz songs. Those who listen on a home stereo or a quality pair of headphones will quickly recognize that every track on the album is extensively layered. Overproduced might not be the right word, but each track is audibly busy and certainly less bare-bones than past Gorillaz albums. Fundamentally, Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez is skillfully and carefully produced, but it lacks the haunting/catchy combination that attracted so many fans in the early-mid 2000s.
The vast array of features on Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez is really what gives it its personality. Granted, Damon Albarn is and always will be the mastermind behind Gorillaz, but he is almost an afterthought to the substantial list of collaborators that includes Beck, Tony Allen, JPEGMAFIA and Elton John, just to name a few. Every song has at least one guest artist, another unheard-of concept for a Gorillaz album. Perhaps most striking is how these artists are paired together to create polarizing songs. For instance, Elton John and 6LACK both have significant vocal parts on the album’s sixth track, “The Pink Phantom.” They even sing a duet near the end of the song in a messy marriage of musical styles that probably sounded better in Damon Albarn’s head. Regardless, this bold combination is just the beginning. “Dead Butterflies'' features Kano, a British rapper with a distinct accent, and Roxani Arias, a virtually unknown singer who has a bittersweet verse in Spanish. On the album’s final song, unexpected dynamic duos continue with Tony Allen and British rapper Skepta.
The album’s quest for musical and artistic diversity is exemplified by a few key tracks. Albarn calls on Fatoumata Diawara for the tenth track, a Malian singer who sings in both French and English. The pair had already collaborated three times since 2012, but Diawara spitting in multiple languages on a full-length Gorillaz album is still surprising. On “With Love To An Ex,” South African singer Moonchild Sanelly sings in English and then in Kinyarwanda on the chorus. The song follows Gorillaz tropes like a driving bass line and off-kilter production, but lyrics in the official language of Rwanda come out of nowhere. In other words, Albarn has his listeners right where he wants them.
The content of Gorillaz songs has always been dark, humorous, and reflective, with a satirical view of humanity and the world. On Gorillaz’ first album in 2001, Albarn worked with a diverse but smaller cast of characters, including rapper Del the Funky Homosapian on the blockbuster hit “Clint Eastwood.” Del wrote the lyrics to his verses on this song, but Albarn gave him a frame — the song was to be about fictional drummer Russel Hobbs’s mental instability regarding the ghost of his dead friend. With this many collaborators on the album, this cohesive sense of theme and story was bound to go out the window at some point. But what’s most shocking is how plainly non-Gorillaz some of the lyrics are. On the album’s fifth track, Albarn and guest singer St Vincent wail “I wanna get drunk, I wanna get stoned” over bouncy pop. This theme recurs on track eight, with Octavian singing “I’ve been drinking and smoking too much” as the very first line of the song. This is simply hilarious to hear on a Gorillaz song, let alone two on the same album. Just think of the dark lyrical bluntness on 2005’s "Demon Days" — “Kids with guns, taking over, it won’t be long.”
Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez sounds like exactly what it is — a modernized Gorillaz. It’s still Damon Albarn behind the boards, with his trademark bass lines and atonal rambling. What’s different is the way the songs sound, not just the style but the feel that the production gives you. If early Gorillaz targeted the repressed, darker side of human emotions, Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez goes after the agreeable and wacky side. Not to say the quality of the music is any poorer, in fact, it’s rich and dense with sound. It’s simply different, and perfectly represents the colorful litany of chaos 2020 has thrown at the world.