Damon Albarn Is a Conductor of Creativity
Credit: Wikimedia

Damon Albarn Is a Conductor of Creativity

...and Gorillaz have done more for art and music than Blur ever will.
Ryan Bassil
London, GB

Damon Albarn is a cat. Or, more specifically, he's the Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland. Clearly, they're two very different creatures: one is a cartoon with pink and purple fur who lounges across tree branches, the other has a bank account, stubble, and is the frontman of a world-renowned band. The pair do share one similarity, however: an ear-splitting, slightly mad, excitingly contagious grin.

Advertisement

Look here, or here, and you'll see the row of enamel gleaming from within Albarn's face. Those with academic intelligence nestled in books (psychologists, authors, Charles Darwin) have posited there's knowledge to be gleaned from such an expression, using body language as a way describe someone's personality or state of mind. Crossed arms, for example, imply defense. Nail biting can be a sign of nervousness, while open palms suggest welcome. In the case of Albarn, there's a sense of wide-eyed excitement, his teeth and pupils joined in a coalition of curiosity.

These body parts (or, rather, the brain controlling them) have led Albarn down several roads in his admirably lengthy career. In brief, this includes: eight albums with Blur, two supergroup releases (one featuring members from the Clash and the Verve, another with Flea and Afrobeat legend Tony Allen), a solo record and more operas and soundtracks than a man in a Fred Perry polo has probably ever been involved in. Gorillaz, however, are his greatest triumph. Fronted by Albarn yet led by a cast of featured artists, they're the product of adventure, growing to represent something that goes beyond music and, for a band called Gorillaz, into something weirdly human.

To reflect on the meaning of Gorillaz and what they've become however, it's crucial to return first to their inception. It's the early 2000s: Labour remain firmly (and, for now, unblemished by America's war) in office; Y2K has taken no casualties. Life is relatively carefree and the Britpop hangover has sleepwalked the airwaves toward anaemic groups like Starsailor (and that one album by Radiohead). "If you watch MTV for too long, it's a bit like hell – there's nothing of substance there", Gorillaz illustrator Jamie Hewlett explained in an interview at the time. "So we got this idea for a cartoon band, something that would be a comment on that."

Advertisement

Hewlett's idea of an animated, fictional band could have been lost as a turn-of-the-century schtick – and to some, it still is. Objectively however, it would be unfair to describe the music as mere novelty. Debut single "Clint Eastwood" wasn't the sound of a band, trip-hop producer, or pop songwriter; it was a slow waltz through the door of a saloon to a separate, new reality. Featuring then (and still) relatively unknown rapper Del the Funky Homosapien effortlessly strolling between Albarn's lazy, barely veiled ode-to-weed of a chorus, the template for Gorillaz had been laid: musicians coming together, however removed their worlds may be, united by a congenital necessity to create.

Though collaboration between artists isn't novel or groundbreaking, Albarn's knack for traversing genre is impressive. Like Kanye West, he weaves together disparate sounds and eras to make music that is both unique and draws on the nuanced talents of specific artists, bringing them into the light, in new ways – take Pusha T's verse on West's "Runaway", for example, or Shaun Ryder on Gorillaz's "D.A.R.E" (the band's sole number 1 single). Where Kanye sees his acts as tools in his own vision however, Albarn takes a step back and brings them centre stage. In doing so, Gorillaz is a holistic celebration of music – something that is most apparent on their latest album and at their Demon Dayz festival, which took place in Kent last month.

Advertisement

Hosted in Dreamland, an adventure park in the British seaside town of Margate – kind of like Coney Island but with damp fish and chips – the festival saw Albarn bring the following musicians on stage: De La Soul, Little Simz, Kano, Jehnny Beth, Popcaan, Bootie Brown, Vince Staples, Kali Uchis, Kilo Kish, Kelela and Danny Brown. As each guest appeared, the energy of the crowd shifted – peaking all over again to celebrate another new artist coming to the stage, bringing with them their own flavour. The coalescence of all these people felt like something more than music. Gorillaz's latest album Humanz has been described as "a party for the end of the world" but it feels more like a representation of the power to be gained from people coming together.

This idea is best exemplified by a line from new track "We Got The Power", where Savages frontwoman Jenny Beth sings: "We got the power, to be loving each other no matter what happens". In our current climate of political and social turmoil, it's a simple yet pertinent message. Of course, there are other artists out there whose work is couched in a similar, worldly kind of collaboration – from the guest features on Tyler, the Creator's new album, to Mura Masa (whose recent release spreads appearances from A$AP Rocky to Jamie Lidell) and back around again to Frank Ocean. But it's Albarn, arguably, who began to foster this cross-genre approach with Gorillaz.

What's most interesting about the way Gorillaz have grown is how they were born from the end of Britpop. Look at the other figureheads of that scene and where they are now: Liam Gallagher queuing up to release a new album of guitar-based tracks, Noel Gallagher eating fancy cupcakes with his new fancy friends, Brett Anderson hanging out in some record label listening party somewhere – alone and no greater than they ever have been. Albarn may be doing what he's always done, but as time has passed and he's grown into his role as a curator, he stands atop something far more important than Britpop has ever been.

Using music as a means to to explore humanity as a greater, shared pursuit, his work with Gorillaz is testament to the idea we can become more together – rather than alone. His smile may be endowed to genetics, but the adventure and fulfillment behind it is one we can all experience, should we choose. And why wouldn't you? As Gorillaz did with "Clint Eastwood", there's a whole other world waiting, sitting behind a door, ready to be waltzed into and experienced.

You can find Ryan on Twitter.