It’s tempting to frame Gorillaz as a sorting convention, a destination for all the bubbly electronic sounds front man Damon Albarn neglects in the globe-trotting musicology experiments that live in his solo records and in the alt-rock chops displayed by Blur and the Good, the Bad, & the Queen. But that’s underselling the slipperiness of the guy, the tool kit, and the catalogue. Yes, Blur blew up Stateside thanks to the chugging guitars in 1997’s “Song 2,” but the 1994 disco message track “Girls & Boys” pushed the Britpop outfit’s hit parade into overdrive elsewhere on the planet. And while Gorillaz was cooked up to pursue sounds that fell outside Blur’s pointedly British musical purview, the cartoon band Albarn created with artist Jamie Hewlett always knew its way around a rock tune.
Cracker Island, Gorillaz’s eighth album, makes the clearest case yet for the unit as an outlet for Albarn’s most radio-ready sounds, a smirking virtual pop band whose bright, childlike melodies transformed it into a stadium act. Conceptualized during time spent in Southern California, Island taps into the local scene as Albarn has done on previous recording trips to Iceland, Mali, and China. In Los Angeles, he worked with super-producer Greg Kurstin (Sia, Adele, Foo Fighters) — who contributed a wealth of guitar, bass, and percussion parts and corralled pop-rock icon Stevie Nicks for a song — and reached out to notable full- and part-time Angelenos like Thundercat, Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker, and Beck for features.
Cracker Island is a journey through the history of West Coast pop music — the sleek adult-contemporary folk-pop Nicks brought to Fleetwood Mac in the ’70s, the sunny New Wave of middle-period No Doubt, the glossy dance rock that excites Coachella crowds — but it also pulls from the stuff Albarn grew up on, like the populist, genre-hopping exploits of the late Specials and Fun Boy Three front man Terry Hall. The ride is smooth because Albarn is a chameleon whose songs adapt quickly to whatever company he’s in. Nicks plays the raspy voice of reason to the dejected lead in “Oil,” swooping up from underneath and carrying a sad song to a euphoric finish that feels both reverent to Fleetwood’s sound and hell-bent on stuffing it with as much outer-space noise and jargon as possible. (Hearing the “Rhiannon” singer compare a cluster-bomb strike to drum-and-bass music is alone worth the price of entry.) “New Gold” invites the Pharcyde’s Bootie Brown to kick rhymes over Parker and Albarn’s dizzying, washed-out groove, mixing ’80s pop sonics, ’90s rap flows, and aughts neo-psych.
The bright synth tones Albarn achieved from raiding Kurstin’s synthesizer collection counterbalance the singer-songwriter’s natural attraction to somber melodies. Giving a recent tour of his West London studio to Zane Lowe, Albarn showed off a piano with an “I <3 Melancholia” sticker on the front panel, an honest assessment of a career that has yielded devastating ballads, from “Best Days” off Blur’s The Great Escape to “El Mañana” from Gorillaz’s Demon Days to the 2021 solo-album cut “Particles.” Cracker Island challenges these tendencies in the same way Gorillaz was meant to pull away from the Britpop box Blur felt trapped in when the band started making the racket that led to “Song 2.”
The songs on the Island that Albarn sings by himself tend to muse on how to live with loneliness and the drift that pulls friendships apart. The protagonist of “The Tired Influencer” has only Siri to talk to in their “cracked-screen world,” and in “Skinny Ape,” band member 2-D resigns to future abandonment like outdated tech. The guests aid in teasing major-chord joy out of minor-chord moods. “Tormenta” acknowledges Bad Bunny as a kindred spirit in the field, adorning airy reggaeton with jazzy guitars and the hiss of rain. The storm in the tropical locale, the palm trees and paranoia Thundercat records evoke, and the forlorn psych of Tame are great mates for the disarmingly bubbly depresso disco and the New Wave gloom that populates Cracker Island. (The Gorillaz film Netflix pulled out of might have fleshed out the cult themes and added another layer of contrasts — the beauty of the hills vs. the violence that sometimes rages through it — that the lyrics tap into. An opportunity was missed, but the album doesn’t feel as thought it’s missing a story.)
Cracker Island entertains as an exercise in giving a synth auteur access to the best and juiciest Yamaha keyboards from the ’80s and a producer equally at ease working with Beck and the Jonas Brothers. It is Albarn’s most overt pop-star play. The worst thing you could say about the album is that it doesn’t visit the stranger places the band’s catalogue is known to, and it skirts the line dividing gooey earnestness from schmaltz in songs like “Silent Running” and “Tormenta” or “Possession Island,” where Beck — whose mid-’90s folk-rap experiments once inspired the Blur star’s excursions into hip-hop — duets on a funereal approximation of a Disney ballad. But as the album starts to drag, Albarn and Kurstin’s restlessness saves it. “Running” takes off on rolling vocal harmonies, and “Possession Island” detours into a mariachi breakdown that feels as if you’re getting serenaded in the middle of a breakup.
The deluxe edition points to the shaggier release Cracker Island could have been, for better or worse: “Crocadillaz” with De La Soul is a perfect encapsulation of the sunny beat tapestries and emotional accessibility that group is about and how it has informed the musical mission of this project over the years, and “Captain Chicken” brings Del tha Funkee Homosapien back for spirited absurdism that doesn’t pair too well with Cracker Island’s effusive sentimentality. A stripped-down piano performance of “Silent Running” confirms it’s a solid groove that would grow repetitive if it didn’t ultimately crash into a pool of overdubbed runs from longtime backing vocalist Adeleye Omotayo. The streamlined approach can itch, but the sensation Cracker Island delivers most consistently is that of being blasted by bubbles — of giving in, however stubbornly, to a good time.