Demon Days

(Virgin; 2005)

By Peter Hepburn | 15 December 2007

I should make it clear right off the bat that I have nothing against Gorillaz—there are no grudges, no hard feelings, no unhealed wounds. I don’t generally have a problem with novelty. Where I get annoyed is when novelty acts aren’t able to back up their shtick, whatever it may be, with quality music. Gorillaz are undeniably novelty, but on their first album they were actually quite good. Here on Demon Days they have half of a good record, and that just isn’t cutting it. What’s particularly interesting about Demon Days is not that they have half of a good record—there are plenty of albums that can’t even manage that—it’s that it’s so clearly the first half. A good deal of everything through MF Doom’s molasses-slow delivery on “November has Come” is fine, but after that it gets pretty dreadful.

It’s pretty easy to pin down what has changed with Gorillaz since we last checked in on them. First, no more Dan the Automator. Instead we get Danger Mouse, and while his Ghetto Pop Life collaboration with Jemini proved that he was more than just a flash in the pan, he certainly is no Nakamura. This leads to the second problem, one that Graham Coxon probably could have warned poor DM about: Demon Days is much more clearly a Damon Albarn project, and no matter how many guests and high-profile rappers they bring in, there are a few songs here that just sound like Blur b-sides. While these may still be good songs, they do break with the idea of the project, therefore working against the album as a whole.

Like I said, though, the first half isn't so bad. The oboe-heavy intro sets a mood darker than Nakamura managed to figure out for Gorillaz, and it leads into the great dub feel of “Last Living Souls,” recalling the Laika Come Home dub remix project that followed Gorillaz. “Green World” is way too heavy on the Albarn, with the sloppy guitars feeling almost mid-period Blur, while the fuzzed out vocals are more contemporary. The second half of “Dirty Harry” is great, letting for some actual rapping over DM’s vast beat.

Still, the real centerpiece here is “Feel Good Inc.,” a song so blazingly hot that it should by all rights eclipse the Del-driven “Clint Eastwood.” The bass line is lazy, Albarn sounds half-awake, DM is just showing off with his keyboards, and the drum track seems to do whatever it wants to. And then De La Soul show up. No, I don’t get it either, but this song manages to be funky, hazy, catchy, and bizarre all in one, which makes it just about everything one could hope for from a Gorillaz track. Following it up with an Albarn-heavy number like “El Manana” works surprisingly well, though that may be in large part to DM’s twitchy and thorough beat. Still, it’s just a wait till Doom shows up for the seriously toned down “November Has Come.” The beat crawls, and Doom isn’t exactly pushing himself, but DM knows to hold himself back and let the master work.

After that, things go south. “All Alone” isn’t that bad, it’s just sort of half-baked at best, and the drums of death approach isn’t too convincing. There would need to be a bit more action to make “White Light” work, and the huge, ‘80s throwback feel of “DARE” falls flat. The less said about Dennis Hopper and his role in this project the better; and “Don’t get Lost in Heaven” is overwrought, underwritten, and (god, I hope) sarcastic. The title track lets Albarn push even harder, and, as it turns out, trying to sell neo-soul through animated monkeys is inadvisable.

Albarn has been talking about how he doesn’t want to make more Blur records without Graham Coxon, but, judging by Coxon’s indifference, we may have some time to wait. It’d be a shame really: Albarn’s Democrazy was so poor, Blur’s Think Tank was so good, and this Demon Days is so mediocre. Not only that—Demon Days clearly shows that Albarn would rather be making his own music and be the center of attention again. The production here is good, some of the songs work well, but the facade seems to be crumbling as this is more and more Albarn, which is just about when the joke stops being funny.