It Was Born on Cracker Island: Gorillaz and the Inevitable Fall of an Anti-Icon Icon
Photo via Pitchfork
If you're like me, and was either born in the early 2000's or inevitably hurled down the indie and alternative rabbit hole, there's a solid chance you've listened to or heard of Gorillaz. "Feel Good Inc", "Clint Eastwood", "On Melancholy Hill"- if you're a young and avid TikTok user, you've probably even heard "Rhinestone Eyes". Point is, the band has made a name for itself over it's two-decade history, and left in its wake a massive international following, an ungodly lore system, and graffiti on the digital playground screaming "Reject False Icons". But what happens when a band becomes too big for its britches? What do you do when you become the icons you so desperately fought to reject?
Gorillaz started out as the passion projection of Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett. Albarn, who was on the cusp of his departure from Blur, and Hewlett, who was still illustrating and authoring his Tank Girl comic strip for Deadline magazine, were watching MTV one afternoon, and agreed upon one thing regarding the network- it was complete and utter shit, zero substance whatsoever. The network had found itself hypnotized by the boy band arms race, prompting Albarn and Hewlett to come up with the idea of manufacturing a band of their own with a twist- completely fabricated characters. Albarn would handle the musical aspect of the partnership, and Hewlett, the visual and artistic side. After initially releasing their first single "Ghost Train" online under the moniker of "Gorilla", the two would eventually come to the creation of the band and the core members of Gorillaz as we know them today- Murdoc Niccals on bass, Stuart '2D' Pot on vocals, keys, and harpsichord, Russel Hobbes on drums, and Noodle on guitar. The band then went on to release their self-titled first album in 2001, and so began what was is referred to as "Phase 1: Celebrity Take Down."
See, Gorillaz lore and album cycles are split up into Phases, each one unique in it's messaging, sound, and overall theme. The band's infamous second record Demon Days was centered around rising tension in the middle east and depicts a post 9/11 world, Plastic Beach focused on the climate crisis and the pollution of our dying planet, Humanz was loosely centered on a more nuclear world, and told this five hour long story about an end of the world party- also Murdoc gets dragged to hell by Satan? There's a lot going on in the larger Gorillaz story, but what started it all of was Gorillaz and the "Celebrity Take Down" of Phase 1. Their first album and its messaging and images, not to mention the sheer novelty of the band as an item, were enough to shake the music industry from the get go. This was a whole group of cartoon characters telling young viewers to throw out everything the radio was playing and that MTV so desperately wanted to peddle to them. Gorillaz wanted you to "Reject False Icons," which band member Noodle would elaborate on, saying "Reject False Icons means many things, one of them is to think for yourself." The slogan meant for listeners to take a step back and think a little bit more about just what it was being sent out over the airwaves. Going forward, the band and its mascots would cement themselves as a politically-charged musical force, becoming more fleshed as the years progressed. But flash forward 21 years since their debut, how in the hell did we get here?
Now that those of us that had a life in middle school and high school are all caught up on their Gorillaz lore (kind of), we can actually get to the point of this article. The first single off of their potential album cycle, thus far nicknamed "The Last Cult," has hit streaming today, and it's a bit of a doozy. "Cracker Island" stands proud as a testament to the band's perseverance and persistence in the modern day's musical meta... and that's about all it does. Gorillaz has found itself stuck in a club-pop, hyperrealistic creative rut, and its really beginning to rear its ugly head. Even Thundercat (yes, Thundercat is really on this, Murdoc hasn't played the bass in 15 years) couldn't bring this single up to where it should be in terms of quality or substance. The song features 2D crooning lazily over a harsh synthesizer and an unrelenting drum loop about a monster born on Cracker Island. It takes a lot of influence from a more techno-centric set of sounds and patterns, which isn't new for the band- 2010's The Fall dealt heavily in this experimental techno-adjacent sound. But similar to The Fall, "Cracker Island" offers little more than a poke and a heads-up that Gorillaz is still making music.
Now, one could argue that this is the natural progression of the band's sound. The only constant in the Gorillaz sound is its inconsistency, regularly pulling from every corner of the music world, both figuratively and physically. In recent years, the once groundbreaking indie sound that would go on to influence an entire generation of musicians and listeners has become a slave to the mainstream, looking for the next hit to capture a fandom that has been begging for a crumb of substance since 2017's disappointingly apathetic Humanz. Not only that, more of Albarn's more polarizingly experimental touch has begun to find it's way into the Gorillaz discography, making much of the last few releases largely unpalatable for many listeners. Song Machine had its hits, The Now Now fell short, and the Meanwhile EP went largely unnoticed. At this stage in the band's career, the question must be answered- where do the Gorillaz fit?
I'm giving this single a lot of flack, but I do want to let it be known that Gorillaz is one of my favorite bands of all time. Demon Days was the first CD I ever bought, and the band and their music hold a very special place in my musical autobiography and in my heart. But the unfortunate truth is that when a band that stakes it's entire identity on derailing trends and going against the grain of popularity, they're bound to develop a following that will inevitably be their own undoing. No matter how sound the ideology, or how developed, or how far out the vision goes, even the most stoic bands can fall victim to the Hit Machine. We'll wait patiently for the next single, hell, they might even just throw the album up altogether, but from the looks of it, The Last Cult could very well be the last of the Gorillaz. Until then, take "Cracker Island" with a grain of salt, keep rejecting false icons, and in the words of the great Murdoc Niccals, hail satan.
Listen to "Cracker Island (feat. Thundercat)" here.