By Conrad Amenta | 15 February 2011
From what I’ve read, there are two angles that really lend themselves to reviewing a freebie album created on an iPad by the singer of a band that may or may not, like the concept of iPad music itself, be a novelty project or a lark. The first is to honestly look at Gorillaz’s discography, especially in light of last year’s surprisingly good Plastic Beach, and assign little value to what is obviously an experiment. The other is to get orgiastic about how professional this album sounds despite being created on something with the computing power of a microwave clock. In other words, we’re either talking about content or we’re talking about medium, but we only talk about the latter because the former isn’t any good.
These two angles are sketched in strange isolation, as if the fact that this band, of all bands, chose to make this album, of all albums, wasn’t somehow significant. Gorillaz started as a synergistic companion to a non-existent cartoon show, and it’s no coincidence that it’s under that flag that Damon Albarn releases what is essentially a solo album. He does so because Gorillaz operate solidly in the sphere of the disposable, though less as commentary on disposability than as comfortable with it as a starting point. The group, such as it is, is poised, perpetually, to capitalize on Damon Albarn’s impulses, his peripatetic wanderings and opportunistic collaborations. Gorillaz is all product and no identity—pure branding, made manifest as art project. This is why they are so thoroughly contemporary, what frees Albarn to make albums on an iPad, and what makes him, in his own way, relevant and challenging.
As a concept, I think The Fall is sound. In execution, it’s spotty. It’s true that The Fall doesn’t have the kind of depth or range of sound as the band’s professionally produced efforts, and there are none of the guest spots that have been treated, up until now, as an essential part of any Gorillaz album. It’s instead a spacey, repetitive chain of thin beats and thinner atmosphere, the sort of thing one imagines a person versed in Abelton or Cubase spitting out almost by accident. So, while I don’t think that the concept of Gorillaz can be separated from the medium via which the material appears, choosing not to separate this material from the fact that it was written on an iPad makes it difficult to ignore that there are some good ideas here that might have been more fully represented. But it’s still an Albarn solo album that, at its best—“Revolving Doors” or the short, sweet “Little Plastic Bags”—is just further evidence of how talented a songwriter he is. Or: choosing not to separate this material from the fact that Albarn ostensibly wrote it in his spare time and gave it away for free makes it difficult to ignore his prolific and ongoing contribution to pop music.
Which is to say that The Fall is worth spending time with, not only for the quality of some of its material, but also for what it exposes of Albarn’s careful conception of what this band should be. “Hillbilly Man” is charmingly cheesy in a way that gets at the gist of the project’s appeal, but it also explains why, really, Albarn can’t do what he does here via a solo album, or a Blur album, or something else. The song’s acoustic plunk turns into keyboard hits that suggest there is no difference between cheesy canned horns here and slightly more idiosyncratic, but still cheesy, canned horns picked out of a ProTools archive. Gorillaz is revealed to be, in fact, something meticulously aesthetic rather than coincidentally good. It might be that in the iPad Albarn has found a tool that allows him to create kitsch without repurposing fully-armed music studios into slum versions. “The Snake in Dallas” and “Amarillo” serve as back-to-back evidence of just how efficiently these writing tools are suited to creating techno, and Albarn then manages to turn rote sounds into forlorn pop with a stark kind of beauty. Like previous Gorillaz albums, where there is tastelessness, there is purposefulness. This deviation is permanent.
Gorillaz continue to be a band it seems like no one wants to take seriously but whose albums consistently end up satisfying. What started out as a project with self-imposed parameters has become a catch-all brand for whatever ideas tumble out of Albarn’s head. He’s divested this music of himself, of ego and autobiography, by beating critics and listeners to the punch of calling it crass. He’s holding up a plastic shield, and it frees him to offer something fresh. That defense will keep Gorillaz from ever being taken as seriously as something ‘legitimate,’ but I don’t have a hard time imagining Albarn writing under the label of Gorillaz for many, many years—producing music in whatever form it moves him, without petty legitimacy at stake.