Gorillaz: Endangered Species and Demons

by evvyram


I think of entering a dream as a kind of waking. Unlike real waking, often accompanied by nervousness and a fraught feeling that clenches up in your knuckles, that makes you cling to your bedsheets, waking into a dream is a seamless experience. The relatively freeform and unorganized experience of sleep goes into a kind of illuminating flux, churning up episodes of terror, love, flight, and the grotesque. Whereas in waking life our brains synthesize and, in Western culture at least, arrange events in a linear sequence, dreams are more like pure living. We “get” the dream, but often can’t even recall what happened. Moment by ethereal moment, we encounter the verdant, organic underside of our lives.

Dreaming and living used to be scarcely separable for me. As a tiger, there was nothing in my mind to call up old memories or try to construct grand narratives out of what I was seeing. Life was a fragmentary cascade of moments; I lacked the illusion of selfhood to stitch it all into a coherent image.

Living with a humanlike mind for the last decade, give or take a year, has brought out to me how primal and basic many of the tensions in human life are. Rage, sexual drive, and other symptoms of having physical bodies certainly account for much of what happens in this world. What I have also noticed, however, is how fundamental the stories are, especially the Stories, to binding the human world together. Without the Stories that underpin ideas like race and religion, without the deep symbolism that intricate piles of concrete and glass can take on, it simply wouldn’t be a human world.

Gravity and the other basic forces keep the physical world together. Stories are every bit as much a part of the furniture of the human universe. Perhaps everything we see is material. I would say that it is not merely material.

Tigers have no reason to tell stories about demons. Gorillaz, however, definitely does. Creative leaders Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett conceived Gorillaz, an animated, genre-hopping band, as a direct commentary on the hollowness of popular culture circa the turn of the millennium.

When we get to 2005’s  Demon Days, however, the point of the bitter joke that is Gorillaz appears to have shifted from stripping away the allure of prepackaged “bagged” sunshine to pushing into the human anxieties that arise in a time of perpetual war. These wars, which still rage above my very head in the human world, somewhere beyond the watertight skies of hell, are not merely perpetual.They are like dreams, dripping into the popular conscious through media and hearsay. So few people in the West can even find their own countries on the map, much less the supposedly tumorous desert lands where, they may imagine, all the riffraff spawn from sand dunes. Truthfully, the wars are more like demons, haunting us and telling us how to think, how to talk, how to act. We are possessed by the malign spirit of war, and exorcising it is the work of prophets who have yet to arrive.

I’m not going to turn and say that Gorillaz were able, in 2005, to banish all the demons. However, the album in question is undoubtedly one whose music attempts to process fragments and anxiety and whose lyrics attempt to penetrate through some of the bullshit and peer at what is really going on.

Before moving into talking about how the artistic collaborators present here grapple with these demons in lyrics, I would like to dwell on the music for a moment more. Pitchfork’s mixed review of this album talks about it as drawing from a kind of toybox of assorted popular culture elements. I would say that it’s more like the album is attempting to find what kind of music is best for articulating its various points. Despite being labeled “alternative hip-hop” by Wikipedia, the album features no rapping until a full third of the way in. While it’s true that the mixing and synthesizing ethos of hip-hop is a governing idea for the music here, no particular genre or its trappings are able to dominate.

A dazzling variety of musical styles are put to use here. Bits and pieces of rap, rock, gospel, and electronic dance music coexist uneasily here, in my mind contributing to the inherent tensions. The feel of the album is almost too cohesive considering the cosmopolitanism is exhibits. What is encouraging is that the people who put this together appear to understand the place and context of each component they’re working with, and how to construct songs, and an album, that can communicate richer themes without sacrificing diversity.

The blunt hip-hop bounciness of “November Has Come” feels just as natural as the insensitive pounding of “Last Living Souls,” and as integral to the whole as the soaring choirs in “Don’t Get Lost in Heaven.” An album that begins with a sample from Romero and ends with an exultant, distorted reggae-driven gospel song has no chance of being entirely coherent, but I feel that that lends Demon Days a great deal of its effectiveness.

Where do we see the anxiety manifesting itself in the music in specific songs? Consider the first full song, “Last Living Souls,” which brings a bass-heavy beat to bear against a flurry of heavily distorted guitars and an almost chipper repeating synth line. Damon Albarn’s voice drones, only occasionally becoming really musical. At one point, pianos and strings enter the picture, giving us a glimpse of harmony before joining back up with the beats and guitars. Albarn is similarly deadpan in “Feel Good Inc.,” which features, among other things, a blistering rap verse and final sung verse that totally break the continuity of the rest of the song’s flow. Many songs here have similarly fragile structures, with frequent interruptions setting the listener on edge even as the album’s catchy hooks and infectious beats settle into the brain. Plus MF DOOM appears. Even at his most low-key, you can’t help but notice the chaos clutching at every verse he delivers.

Now to the lyrics. The first coherent sentence you hear on the album–the intro has some buzzy incomprehensible chatter–is a question. “Are we the last living souls?” The question seems self-directed, and it repeats over and over again like a mantra. During the song, it’s difficult to discern any situation or context for the question beyond a general apocalyptic feeling. At one point in the song, Albarn speak/sings this set of lines:

Take a gun

Or how you say

That’s no way

To behave

But just as long you need the gear

So sing a song that doesn’t sin

It grows

Hey, you know

What I find in these lines is an attempt to reconcile the demands of this new world situation. We need to take up arms, but our internals are wired to say “that’s no way to behave.” Social conditioning and necessity conflict, and the way we reconcile the two is often through objects and people who comfort us. In this, the song references songs that don’t sin. What a curious notion, I say to myself. Above, I suggested that Gorillaz’s target had shifted. I would like to revise that. Instead, I would say that Gorillaz is still aiming at the superficial popular culture that acts as so much insulation against real suffering and joy, only the work on Demon Days is more explicitly political.

Many of the songs touch on the interplay and conflict between art and reality. The most poignant example of this is on “Dirty Harry,” in which a children’s choir pines for firearms and a troubled veteran of war, animated by the quick-paced rapping of The Pharcyde’s Bootie Brown. The narrators appear to act out of a genuine concern at first. “I need a gun/To keep myself among/The poor people/Out burning in the sun.” This justification indicates a story that you can tell your children when they ask why the country is at war. What could possibly require drastic violence? Because the people back home are isolated from real suffering in the war, they can safely consume whatever ideological narrative they need.

Like a bolt from the heavens, the tranquil choir and relatively sedate beat are fractured and split open. I’ll reproduce the entire verse here so you can gauge its full effect.

In my backpack, I got my act right

In case you act quite difficult

And you is so weaken with anger and discontent

Some are seeking and searching like me, moi

I’m a peace-loving decoy, ready for retaliation

I change the whole occasion to a pine box six-under

Impulsive, don’t ask wild wonder

Orders given to me is ‘Strike’ and I’m thunder

With lightning fast reflexes on constant alert

From the constant hurt that seems limitless

With no dropping pressure

Seems like everybody’s out to test ya

‘Til they see your brake

They can’t conceal the hate that consumes you

I’m the reason why you flipped your soosa

Chill with your old lady at the tilt

I got a ninety days digit and I’m filled with guilt

From things that I’ve seen

Your water’s from a bottle, mine’s from a canteen

At night I hear the shots ring, so I’m a light sleeper

The cost of life, it seems to get cheaper

Out in the desert with my street sweeper

The war is over, so said the speaker

With the flight suit on

Maybe to him I’m just a pawn

So he can advance

Remember when I used to dance

Man, all I wanna do is dance

What we observe here is what happens when we make the move from a broader, political perspective on war to a more individualized one. In order to fulfill the wishes of the people, some volunteers are sent over and condemned to a life of split identity. Soldiers in the field who arrive back in a country that barely knows what’s going on. The country does not militarize because the war is being waged in the name of peace. Living with this contradiction is a major source of anxiety not just for the soldiers, though they might feel it most acutely, but for any conscious citizen. War is a grand and noble adventure, so we might think–the highest service one can render to one’s country. What “Dirty Harry” evokes is the experience of the unselfconscious innocence of dance and the grit of war rubbing up against each other.

Another theme that reveals itself in intriguing ways throughout the album is a certain connection it makes between the anxiety of perpetual war and decay with God. Perhaps my religious ears make too much of this, but for me there is no escaping the little flashes of transcendence. Combined with the album’s title and the dramatic turn toward the cosmic that it makes at the end, I think it’s safe to say that religion–dare I say, Christianity?–has at least an indirect role in reinforcing the album’s thematic messaging.

Roots Manuva, who raps on the agonized love song “All Alone,” begins his first verse with references to the Biblical texts of Leviticus and Deuteronomy. If you’ve followed Manuva in his work previous to this, you know that he has a conflicted relationship with religion, and this song is a good example of that trend as well. The two books referenced are Old Testament law books, given to Israel as guides for how they are to live out their covenantal responsibilities to the one God. The song, however, celebrates a more uncontrolled kind of ecstasy, one directed toward another person.

We’s about to make it clear

We happy or we lonesome

The long jump, the beat heart, from start to finish

Ten spoons of spinach

The soul and the spillage

The cup that runneth ovah

We turn up the o-god!

Like “Last Living Souls,” “All Alone” tries to find solace from the loneliness that festers amidst the artificially constructed happiness that people surround themselves with. Finding meaning in love, in a fervent passion for other people, expressed physically or otherwise, seems to be a thin solution. However, I would argue that, whether momentary or long lasting, this kind of loving and caring expression is ultimately what grounds people’s lives in order, that helps them make sense of the stories they tell.

One final close inspection is warranted before turning to the final part of the album. Consider the chorus from “Feel Good Inc.”:

Windmill, Windmill for the land.

Learn forever hand in hand

Take it all in on your stride

It is stinking, falling down

Love forever love is free

Let’s turn forever you and me

Windmill, windmill for the land

Is everybody in?

Windmills, for those not initiated into the world of pre-industrial machinery, are primarily designed to turn wind into power. Older windmills were designed to grind grain or pump water, with modern ones designed to generate electricity. While the pleasures we can find in the world are increasingly becoming refuges from anxiety and salves for guilt, the song almost commands the listener to “love forever.” Love, unlike anything that can be produced by a corporation, is free. Thus it is genuine relationship that breaks through the plastic-wrapped, sugar-coated shell we hide ourselves in.

Finally, let’s consider the three-song cycle at the close of Demon Days. The first, “Fire Coming Out of the Monkey’s Head,” is an apocalyptic fable. Here is what I had to say about it to a Christian group:

“Songs that disrupt, that leave me aching for visions of Unimaginable Sincerity and Beauty, are usually simple enough to be universal and complicated enough to resonate specifically. The songwriter here tells a childlike, if morbid, fairy tale of lost purity, a story about two kinds of people. Happyfolk are trapped in blissful ignorance. The others, the Strangefolk, are obsessed with seeing and grasping, taking what they want with little regard for consequences. If you this song to be an allegory, you can project any number of misguided villains onto them.

But I sympathize with the Strangefolk. I, too, look up to mountains and imagine their utmost depths. I want to peel back the obvious and find the Ultimately True lurking under the surface. I want to look into the place where all good souls come to rest without burning my eyes. For me the song represents two ways of living, neither of which escapes the blight of corruption. The Happyfolk are falsely happy because they don’t understand that you can’t hide from the world, that there is great strife and that the world harbors great evils and goods alike. The Strangefolk pay for their momentary visions of eternal bliss with disorder and chaos.

I want to be neither. I want my eyes opened to awe and to despair, and this song gives us an apocalypse that is undigestible, that we cannot process entirely as long as we don’t try to map easy allegories onto it. I hope that in the stories we hear sung today we can glimpse the place where we can go to rest, the Truth that comes breaking through great clouds.”

What we see in the final two tracks is a brighter vision emerging from the cosmic nothingness that reigns at the end of that fable. The penultimate song, “Don’t Get Lost in Heaven,” warns against settling into a complacent vision that allows you to sleep well at night. Hopeful for the promises of heaven, one can be paralyzed by the realities of evil in the world. Having been to heaven and back, let me tell you that it’s true. Heaven as we know it is enervating. It has no meat, no substance to ground us. Suburbia, invoked in the song, is a similar false paradise.

The album finishes with a call to repentance, a cosmic charge: turn away from the comfort and embrace risk. It calls on the listener to turn around, to face the reality of the world. “In demon days, it’s cold inside,” but there is a pivot here. Demon Days hopes to come to terms with the anxieties not by burying or denying them but by inviting its listeners to come to a new life.

That’s why I love listening to it. Those interested in a more critical, “balanced” review that takes apart the songs for likes and dislikes, I may write that someday. What I want to communicate here is how, through a menagerie of pop music modes, references to politics, and confrontations with the jitters of perpetual war, Gorillaz has managed to illuminate modern anxieties.

I didn’t write much about “White Light.” But in that song, there is a break in the clouds. Depending on my mood, I either focus on the entropy and collapse that surrounds it or get soaked into the momentary bliss. What I love is that this album includes both in their full richness.