“Calling the world from isolation / ’Cause right now, that’s the ball where we’ll be chained” — Gorillaz, “Humility”
This year feels like freefall, but it’s tough to guess how far and fast we’ll fall. I’m apprehensively revisiting histories of blighted and oppressed people — obsessing over 1930s Italy, 1940s Nuremberg, and 1980s New York and San Francisco, and following stories of modern murders of trans Americans. I’m studying how they got by, how they got out. Morality is changing rapidly; hope is sputtering. We aren’t the first people to live under a pall of uncertainty, but the prime question in such times is how to keep from being the last. Music is an excellent coping mechanism. It helps override the alarmist, pragmatist impulses that pepper our conversations about the future with fretful, ominous ifs. Empathetic songwriters make this their express business. Stevie Wonder urged our parents and grandparents to strive to reach higher ground. Kendrick Lamar and Ariana Grande knew that we needed to hear that we’re gonna be all right.
Two new albums from London songwriters this week seem intent upon inspiring listeners to dare to dream and to fight through the crushing gravity of the times, to love and cherish each other. Damon Albarn returns with the sixth Gorillaz full-length, The Now Now, and Florence and the Machine serves album number four, the colossal High As Hope. Both works feature songs about overcoming loneliness for different reasons: Florence Welch, who actually has the words “Always Lonely” tattooed on her elbow, has presented High As Hope as a moment of personal reckoning and an appreciation of the people who helped her reach it, or else weathered her faults in the meantime. The Now Now sees Damon looking inside America again, and praying that people here and in his home country can make it to the future.
The message of The Now Now was spelled out in kind earlier this year during Albarn’s admittedly drunken Brit Awards speech. Accepting for Best British Group, the singer-songwriter took a minute to warn his peers and successors not to let their differences divide them. “We’ve got a real spirit and a real soul,” he said. “Don’t let politics get in the way of all of that shit.” The Now Now’s more artful about it: “I don’t want this isolation,” album opener “Humility” croons through cheerful guitar squeals from smooth-jazz legend George Benson. “See the state I’m in now?” From there, the album careens between upbeat, encouraging dance numbers and slow songs where the singer uses his cartoon avatar 2-D to give pep talks to fans about what to do when you feel down on your luck. “I’m not gonna cry,” the crestfallen “Kansas” resolves. “I’ve got more time to give.”
Albarn recently told Entertainment Weekly that the new album was largely “written from the tops of buildings or on buses in America.” Like Gorillaz’s 2010 roadside iPad recording exercise The Fall, The Now Now was written on a tour, this time for last year’s Humanz, and song titles seem to relay where they were written. The vastness and versatility of the countryside come through in the songs about cities, states, and clubs. “Hollywood” is all gloss and West Coast hip-hop attitude. “Idaho” is a genteel, bucolic word on lakes and elks, the group’s most earthy endeavor since The Fall’s breathtaking Bobby Womack solo “Bobby in Phoenix.” “Magic City” affects the lively pulse of a southern nightclub with chunky low end; “Lake Zurich” salutes the slow build and busy percussion of Chicago house music. Situating the peppy road-trip songs alongside dour tracks like “Fire Flies” (“Baby, I just survive / I’m love drunk, I’m sorry / Am I losing you?”) and “Sorcererz” (“Everybody cool down … Everybody hold on to your inner visions”) feels like the singer speeding to lose his demons on the open road but remembering at every stop that everyone has problems, and it’s cooperation, not seclusion, that shakes the lot of us out of a rut.
Florence and the Machine’s High As Hope is a travelogue of sorts as well, but not of tour stops. Throughout the album, Florence Welch is listing off qualities she has had to jettison, like dead weight, on the path to becoming a better person. In “Grace,” she apologizes for feeling like a disappointing daughter (“I guess I could go back to university / Try and make my mother proud / Stop this phase I’m in she deems dangerous in love”) and a taxing sister (“You were the one I treated the worst / Only because you loved me the most”). “South London Forever” laments Welch’s youthful dependence on alcohol for courage in social situations. “Hunger” opens up about conquering an eating disorder and the sense that, in the early days of the band, Welch was wrong in using the spectacle and attention of the stage as a means to seek inner peace. Later, “Sky Full of Song” dramatizes the disorienting comedown after the rousing uplift of a good gig.
Amid High As Hope’s psychological upheaval, there’s hell to be paid for neglectful people in “Big God” which excoriates an unnamed offender in almost biblical terms. Welch swears she wrote the song, with its stunning coda lines — “Shower your affection, let it rain on me / And pull down the mountain, drag your cities to the sea” — when someone forgot reply to a text. (Lorde warned about what happens when you cross a writer.) Florence keeps the same melodramatic energy for her heroes: “Patricia” thanks the poet and punk legend Patti Smith profusely for inspiration. “Grace” saves the most euphoric vocal in an album full of soaring high notes for the estranged sister who deserved better treatment than Florence was capable of mustering at a messier time in her life. It’s in songs like “Patricia” and “Grace,” and in “June”’s impassioned refrain of “Hold onto each other,” that High As Hope reveals its themes: Life is too short for unfinished business. Love is too strong to waste on the selfish and the careless.
High As Hope’s examination of Florence’s pre-fame foibles using the locomotive power of her band and collaborators evokes the crisp production and historical obsessions of an expensive action-movie prequel. (The reason this band gets enlisted on soundtracks for films like these is that, at full charge, Welch and her now eight-piece band literally sound like combat in progress. This time around, co-production from Lana Del Rey’s Born to Die architect Emile Haynie and arrangements from modern sax mystic Kamasi Washington, on “Big God,” award the singer a lumbering power underfoot to match the sting of her notes and words.) This is the Rogue One to the Thames beat trilogy that preceded it, more gruesome and honest but encouraging in the knowledge that the hurt you hear isn’t in vain. Florence quit drinking, and she seems at peace with fame and with using her platform and story to guide her fans to greatness. That makes High As Hope an ending as well as a new beginning. We know what exhausting traits Florence has rid herself of in order to get to this point; it’ll be encouraging to see what heights she reaches in the years to come.
Normally, I’d stop here, wryly, and say, “If there are that many years to come.” But the Eeyore act is misspent energy. Fighting’s how we win the future; braying’s how we don’t. Whatever you can find that reinforces the fight in you — friends, family, cartoon-band love songs, pop singers’ allegorical poetry, comic books, religious texts, cat videos, prestige TV, political nonfiction — grab on, hold tight, and be strong.