Well it only took about three great records for Gorillaz to make one shitty one (we'll count The Fall as more of a mixtape than a proper album, given how tossed-off and disposable it wound up being). Starting with their self-titled dub/punk toybox, Gorillaz have improved steadily with each record, Damon Albarn managing an impressive rotating door of curated guests and contributors, yet maintaining a real sense of identity the entire time. Demon Days utilized the Danger Mouse's exceptional talent to craft a shuffling, smoke-filled dance party; Plastic Beach saw his palette expand and resulted in a glistening, polished pop album.
Humanz seems to aim for sonic territory somewhere in between the two albums that preceded it, vacillating between Albarn's trademark lowkey, rainy-day-in-London sensibilities and shiny bangers. Easily one of Albarn's most defining — and enjoyable — gifts as both a musician and a producer is his ability to find guests who improbably mesh with his rainy-day vibe in the most unexpected and pleasant ways possible. For example, Popcaan fits perfectly over Albarn's saddish chorus on "Saturnz Barz," easily one of the record's highlights. Like the album's other standout cuts, it's just groovy enough to get moving, just gloomy enough to sound like a Gorillaz song. The problem is that Humanz comes with the inexplicable distinction of having several songs that sound dashed-off and half-baked, an odd occurrence considering Albarn's usual polish and perfectionism.
"Moments" is the first real forehead-slapper after a handful of mostly-pleasant opening tracks. "Ascension" all but begs to be skipped, its sophomoric hook highlighting one of the record's lazier moments, and "Strobelight" is fine but isn't grabbing anyone by the lapels. Arriving at "Moments," though, is likely to land listeners in their first real "what the fuck?" territory since The Fall came out. Featuring a wasted De La Soul and absolutely grating production, "Moments" is a jagged, four-to-the-floor mistake. "Submission" doesn't do any better, with Danny Brown yelping over an otherwise too-slick pop track, another example of a surprisingly mishandled guest spot. "Busted and Blue" is criminally boring, never going anywhere and critically forgetting to pair Albarn's raincloudery with any moments of levity, and it isn't until "Let Me Out" that Humanz offers any kind of convincing argument for being turned up.
In a lot of ways, Gorillaz are not a band that exist in the moment, but for it, as Albarn and Jamie Hewlett's creation seems intentionally engineered with the ability to pivot in mind. Each new album sees the band more or less re-formed, has a relatively distinct musical identity, and deals thematically with a new set of issues and anxieties. As such, each Gorillaz record — maybe with the exception of the first, which can perhaps be seen as a proof of concept — is a dive into whatever is most fucked up about the current geopolitical climate. At this point, after three records of doomsaying, Gorillaz seem to have hit their first stale moment. Maybe at this point Damon Albarn and company are as sick of talking about how fucked up things are as everyone else. If that's the case, Humanz makes it apparent.