Despite five albums and nearly twenty years of existence, it remains difficult to say what constitutes a Gorillaz record, beyond Damon Albarn telling us that one is. Such are the existential hazards of an imaginary band: high concepts expand and contract at the whim of its creator, with musicians inked into the storyboard as animated supporting cast in a grand cartoon jamboree or just written in as fourth-wall-breaking live-action superstars in a sort of inverse Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Meanwhile, a concrete idea of quite what Gorillaz actually sound like remains out of reach.
All of which makes ‘The Now Now’ – the band’s sixth attempt at forging a sonic identity – a curious album to parse. Purportedly written alone by Albarn in hotel rooms while touring last year’s ‘Humanz’, and performed solo with the exception of some breezy guitar noodle from George Benson on the opening track and a 35-second Snoop Dogg cameo three songs in, on the one hand there are few threads to link it to Gorillaz gone by: the first half’s songs in particular are aimlessly unremarkable, with little of the swagger or paradigm-disrupting confidence of the Gorillaz concept at its height.
On the other, though, ‘The Now Now’’s bouncy hip-pop stylings, Albarn’s lovelorn vocals and a sort of ageless retro pick’n’mix production style – a little new wave here, a little G-funk there, sprinklings of dub and psychedelia – lend it a certain Gorillaz familiarity, albeit only in a fairly ephemeral way, like a family nose on an otherwise unrecognisable cousin: as a follow-up to ‘Humanz’, whose guest vocalists outnumbered its tracks and whose sonic approach leant hard on cutting-edge pop music, ‘The Now Now’ may as well be a different band entirely, but from time to time (the sleepily addictive chorus on ‘Humility’; ‘Fire Flies’’ skewiff waltz; the push-and-pull of lazy vocals against four-square drum programming on ‘Souk Eye’) the sound of Albarn writing his distinctive iteration of chart pop cuts through.
Indeed, it’s when taken entirely out of its cartoon-band context that ‘The Now Now’ sounds best. ‘Lake Zurich’’s slow-build electro-funk is the sort of instrumental track that past Gorillaz albums might’ve slathered with guests, but here its swing and propulsion is allowed to shine unadorned with great effect. Equally, ‘Idaho’ is as near to a classic Albarn ballad as has ever appeared on a Gorillaz record, its childlike lullaby melody and crepuscular chorus offering a three-dimensionality that’s welcomingly strange. ‘Magic City’, too, sees Albarn repurposing his well-worn melancholy-regret-longing-poignancy tool to create the sort of direct but intriguing pop that he does best but which is so often subsumed by the Gorillaz concept: as the tinkling pianos disintegrate around Albarn’s yearning vocal at the song’s end, there’s relief that no animated rappers were shoehorned in.
Whether imaginary pop groups can break up was the sort of clever-clever question that Damon Albarn regularly fielded with a rye smile back when Gorillaz was still a self-aware, indie reaction to music reality TV and pop-RnB’s imperial reign over the charts; in 2018, though, Gorillaz are a big enough commercial operation to render the idea of them being a thought-provoking splash of leftfield postmodernism as a little dated. Paradoxically, however, ‘The Now Now’ – a Damon Albarn solo album in all but name, and a perfectly likeable one at that – leaves that question feeling rather pertinent: if your imaginary band stop sounding like an imaginary band, what’s the point in pretending anymore?