Listening to Gorillaz, Damon Albarn's virtual supergroup's debut album, twelve years later, reveals how much the band was more of an extension of Blur, two-parts britpop plus one-part hip hop, rather than the dramatic sonic break they seemed to be at the time. Moreover, the album sounds a mess compared to the cohesion of mood and sound of its follow-up, the excellent Demon Days. Plastic Beach, in turn, further deepens and consolidates the band's sound. Albarn has finally left britpop (and, for the most part, guitars) behind, in favor of symphonic flourishes and layers of synthesizers.
Gorillaz has always been a protean collective of artists shaped by Albarn, but it was possible to imagine an actual (cartoon) band playing its own music. On Plastic Beach, however, it's clear that Gorillaz is the vehicle of a singular genius. Even when Albarn's vocal is absent (as it is on much of the album), his force is felt more than ever, especially his incredible knack for melody, which only Stephin Merritt, his closest contemporary, rivals. Here Albarn is more composer than performer, one who allows his guest stars to shine (like Lou Reed, who recalls his former greatness on "Some Kind of Nature").
The sound of Plastic Beach is best expressed by "Empire Ants," which begins as a Dark Side of the Moon ballad that eventually gives birth, and cedes, to an electronic stomp led by Little Dragon. Its best tracks, "Stylo," "Rhinestone Eyes," "White Flag," bend and twist. The album also provides many straightforward pleasures, the giddy "Superfast Jellyfish" (whose chorus recalls the band's past heights), the gorgeous and appropriately-titled "On Melancholy Hill," and the equally-beautiful Bobby Womack showstopper "Cloud of Unknowing."
Plastic Beach trades big hits for consistency. No song matches the immediate brilliance of singles like "Clint Eastwood," Feel Good Inc.," or "DARE." Yet the whole towers over its parts, and Plastic Beach towers over its predecessors. This is pop music at its funky, oddball best.