Gorillaz began making their seventh studio album with the specific intention of not making an album. Instead, the Song Machine project was conceived as a series of monthly stand-alone singles that would be created in the moment, without the constraints or concepts that come with shaping an album. “That’s the definition of contemporary, isn’t it?” Remi Kabaka Jr.—producer, drummer, percussionist, and Gorillaz’s third member alongside Damon Albarn, and Jamie Hewlett—tells Apple Music. “It’s more interesting working in this episodic format because it’s easier to respond to a moment than trying to remember your response to the moment. You are a bulletin—a responder in the moment, not a reporter of the moment.”
Songs were forged in intensive bursts, as quickly as ideas and collaborators could be brought together. The series launched with “Momentary Bliss,” a linkup with the insurrectionary voices of slowthai and Slaves, in January 2020 before lockdown changed the cadence of releases to every few weeks. Nevertheless, work continued across all available forms of communication and the music kept coming. “I don’t know if [lockdown] changed the process of making songs, I think it changed the subject matter,” says Kabaka. “You like an artist, you play them a track whether it’s online or IRL, if they like it, you’ll work together. Technology is just a music delivery system; it hasn’t radically changed the creative process for Gorillaz. If you can get in touch with someone and you have something to write about, then boom! You just go from there.” The list of collaborators is as rich and as stellar as it’s ever been on a Gorillaz project, with Elton John, The Cure’s Robert Smith, Georgia, 6LACK, and Malian singer-songwriter Fatoumata Diawara all drawn into the band’s orbit. “Song Machine is a universe of sound, and I think there is more university of sound than there ever was,” says Kabaka. “In a way, Song Machine as a whole has become more cellular.”
Gorillaz’s magic is to fuse those various cells together into a new, cohesive whole. Collaborators were chosen for the way they could inspire or evolve a song as much as how they might fit ideas that were already brewing. “The music can loudly choose the artist, or the artists can choose the idea you hadn’t actually thought of,” he says. “You have to have multiple ideas and options; you can’t be scared of losing an idea. That’s part of being agile and in the moment—you have to go in with as little preconception as possible, and as much possibility as you can. You have to respond to the needs of the artist—they’re the ones with the master plan. Surprise is why we invited them. You have to hope they can surprise you.” The results are still unmistakably Gorillaz: off-kilter pop that’s playful, melancholy, worldly, and tethered to sharp melodies.
It eventually became clear that there was a very good album to be pieced together from these free-standing songs. And it’s one that reflects the turbulence and trauma of 2020. On “The Valley of the Pagans,” Beck sends strutting dispatches from a “land of the permanent sun/Where the flowers are melted and the future is fun.” ScHoolboy Q bounds across the spongy funk of “Pac-Man,” asking, “How can I trust truth?” And, with customary edginess, The Cure’s Robert Smith alludes to our “surgical glove world” in the title track—a song that manages to be both a call to the dance floor and the sound of humanity locked in an ominously downward spiral. But there’s plenty of optimism and positive energy too, running from the yearning trilingual pop of “Désolé” to the certain assertion that “We could do so much better than this” on “Momentary Bliss.” “Strange isn’t bad, it’s just weird,” says Kabaka. “We’re intelligent enough to recognize that mutation changes how the world develops, and change is good.” In the 20 years between this album and Gorillaz’s first EP, Tomorrow Comes Today, the world has mutated in unimaginable ways. Gorillaz, though, remain a vibrant and inventive bulletin of their times. “The essence [of Gorillaz] is the same as it’s always been,” says Kabaka. “It’s still weird and it’s still wonderful. But maybe we have changed.”