As is now well-known, a vast new continent of non-biodegradable plastic waste is being created just beneath the surface of the Pacific Ocean; in Gorillaz's Plastic Beach, it's breached the surface to form an island which serves as the cartoon group's headquarters – a Tracy Island of the imagination, created by consumerism.
Damon Albarn got the idea for the album after contrasting the different approaches to waste disposal in Mali and Britain – the African landfills thoroughly picked over by an army of scavengers, while the British ones, despite being less assiduously recycled, nevertheless provided habitats for wildlife. Hence the ambivalent attitude at work in Plastic Beach, which both cautions about ecological damage yet retains some faith in the planet's ability to turn adversity to its advantage.
Not that this is made too explicit on the album, which basically serves as another vessel from which to launch a series of guest vocal collaborations over Albarn's twitchy electro keyboard grooves, a line-up ranging from venerable curmudgeons like Mark E. Smith and Lou Reed to rappers Snoop Dogg, De La Soul and Mos Def; soul legend Bobby Womack; grime stars Kano and Bashy; and even Mick Jones and Paul Simonon, together again in dub harness for the first time since the demise of The Clash. Only on Albarn's own vocal vehicles does the message come through with any coherence, however, as he laments the "plastic power" and corruption of nature "in factories far away".
Elsewhere, Snoop Dogg pauses only briefly to reflect how "it seems like the world is hopeless" before reverting to his usual themes of hedonism and his personal wonderfulness on "Welcome To The World Of The Plastic Beach"; De La Soul hail "King Neptune and his water-breathers" as Gruff Rhys adds a typically whimsical jingle for a breakfast cereal to "Superfast Jellyfish"; Mark Smith offers a few cryptic phrases and a monstrous laugh or two over the galumphing techno groove of "Glitter Freeze"; Lou Reed ponders "Some Kind Of Nature"; and Kano and Bashy advise us to "love and respect the island, no stealing – and don't bring religion here".
Musically, variety is provided by the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, who add bright fanfares and syncopated horn riffs to "Welcome To The World..." and "Sweepstakes" respectively, and by The National Orchestra for Arabic Music, whose percussion, flute and strings on "White Flag" recall Sun Ra's Middle-Eastern experiments. The most successful track is "Stylo", a Kraftwerkian electro-twitch on which the efforts of Albarn, Mos Def and the Bobby Womack impress.
Download this: Stylo; Superfast Jellyfish; White Flag; Sweepstakes; Cloud Of Unknowing