TRACK by TRACK: Gorillaz's 'Cracker Island'
One of the most unique bands working today can be found in multi-instrumentalist Damon Albarn’s animated project, Gorillaz. With intricate lore between the animated band members and gargantuan live shows, Albarn’s former side project has assumed center stage with a dense catalogue of irresistible tunes and heartfelt anthems. Boasting hits such as: “Dirty Harry”, “Clint Eastwood”, and the ever-popular “Feel Good Inc.”, fans have fallen in love with Albarn’s experimental mix of hip-hop and alternative rock. However, while Albarn may be the man behind the music, Gorillaz music videos and album covers tell a different story. “The band’s” animated lineup consists of lead singer 2-D, guitarist Noodle, bassist Murdoc, and drummer Russell, with each album following the gang on a different adventure. The animated band has also amassed a large fanbase, dedicated to following the zany tales as they unfold from album to album.
With Albarn’s last release under the Gorillaz name, 2020's Song Machine: Vol 1, the latest release of Cracker Island shows the band emerging from the COVID-19 quarantine and ready to embark on a new adventure. The cover ofCracker Island, as well as some of the lyrical content, points to themes of a cult, headed by bassist Murdoc, as he “indoctrinates” his fellow band members. While this may point to the album’s subject matter and mood being darker, Gorillaz have a rich discography that has proved Albarn’s expertise in mixing complex messages with unique production. With a new adventure awaiting the band, let’s delve into the world of Cracker Island!
1. “Cracker Island” (feat. Thundercat)
Cracker Island begins with its title track, introducing the album’s focus on electronic synthesizers as well as the genre of funk. This first track starts the album off with a bang, as a driving drum beat and urgent synth snap to life, providing the song’s continuous groove. The song’s featured artist, the iconic and quirky Thundercat, provides backing vocals and sweet harmonies that bounce along the catchy rhythm. Albarn’s deadpan vocal delivery during the song’s verses introduce the listener to the world of Cracker Island and give backstory to the fictional cult started by the animated band members. While these lyrics craft the events that took place in the band’s larger lore, these lyrics also seem to double as a reflection on the role of fame and the crafting of the ideal path to fame. While the song’s production starts off with dark and brooding chords, it later shifts to a syncopated rhythm more focused on a dancing groove.
Favorite Lyrics: “Where the truth was auto tuned / And its sadness I consumed...”
2. “Oil” (feat. Stevie Nicks)
The album’s second track, “Oil”, contains one of the most shocking and effective musical guests on the album: Fleetwood Mac’s Stevie Nicks. The track shines with its use of sunny production, vocal harmonies, and balanced backbeat. However, Stevie Nicks’ commanding yet ethereal vocal delivery steals the show as she expands on the album’s themes of yearning. In addition to the song’s shimmering production, Albarn keeps the funky rhythm section from the track prior.
Favorite Lyrics: “Fly out of the doldrums and recall the log / From the early database of your love…”
3. “The Tired Influencer”
The album’s third track, “The Tired Influencer”, follows the story of an exhausted character who has traveled to California with intentions of pursuing fame. Albarn’s use of synths on this track balances themes of loneliness with rising emotion. Perhaps the most unique instrument featured on this track is not an instrument at all. As Albarn delivers lyrics that expand on The Influencer’s journey towards fame, the Apple virtual assistant, Siri, can be heard replying in the background. These responses from Siri include: “Here’s what I found…” and “I didn’t get that, can you try again?” Albarn’s samples of these replies draws attention to the themes of loneliness, as The Influencer attempts to engage in a pseudo-conversation with Siri, pouring his heart out to fact-based technology. Throughout the track, Albarn’s vocal delivery soars amongst the techno-based production, introducing the sadder themes that return later in the album.
Favorite Lyrics: “It was a different time / I hear that a lot up in the hills (In the hills) / Logic kills and Silver Lake reflections…”
4. “Silent Running” (feat. Adeleye Omotayo)
On the album’s fourth track, “Silent Running”, a synth-heavy instrumental drags the listener into a moody, neon-lit underworld reminiscent ofDaft Punk’s melancholy anthems and The Weeknd’s most recent catalogue. Throughout the song, Albarn’s somber lyrics blend perfectly with trance-like synthesizers, crafting an interesting mood that invokes a feeling of loneliness while life races by. The song’s rhythm section provides an infectious groove as intricate drums match perfectly with a groovy bassline. In the song’s chorus, catchy drum fills add to the urgency of the song’s lyrics while the blissful synthesizer circles round and round, mimicking the action of running in circles. Albarn’s wailing vocals tinged with themes of reflection and desire are repeated by the song’s featured artist,Adeleye Omotayo, a singer in the Gorillaz live band. Throughout the track, Omotayo provides soaring vocal runs that emphasize the feelings of longing.
Favorite Lyrics: “Through the infinite pages, I scroll out / Searchin’ for a new world / That waits on the sunrise…”
5. “New Gold” (feat. Bootie Brown & Tame Impala)
The album’s fifth track, “New Gold”, was perhaps the most anticipated single released ahead of Cracker Island. Fans of both Tame Impala and Gorillaz leapt out of their seats upon discovering that popular psychedelic rock and funk outfit Tame Impala (the stage name for multi-instrumentalistKevin Parker) would be combining talents with Gorillaz’s Damon Albarn. Overall, this fabled collaboration between the two titans of funk/alternative rock delivers in every way possible. “New Gold” fits perfectly on the tracklist, continuing the genres of funk through its driving bassline and jangling drums. Parker takes center stage at the beginning of the song, providing his signature falsetto vocals that weave between a shrill synth and groovy percussion. The song’s second featured artist isBootie Brown, a rapper from the famed '90s rap group The Pharcyde. Brown’s rap verses bounce along to the head-bobbing rhythm, with lyrics that touch on the rocky road to fame. “New Gold” certainly follows Gorillaz’s signature mix of deeper themes with intricate production, as lyrics focus on chasing fame and the dangerous toll it can take.
Favorite Lyrics: “New gold, fool’s gold / Everythin’ will disappear / Someone’s out here / Who traveled far too many years…”
6. “Baby Queen”
Cracker Island’s 6th track, “Baby Queen”, may be the most heartfelt song on the entire album. The song’s lyrics follow the true story of Albarn meeting a young princess from Thailand and the dream he had about her growing up. On this track, Albarn’s lyrics explore themes of fearing the future and the pains of growing up in the modern world. These comforting lyrics are excellently matched with Albarn’s glistening production, as if the listener was in a blissful dream. The song’s use of the grand piano also drives home the feelings of nostalgia and regret with melancholy chords and reflecting melodies.
Favorite Lyrics: “Down in the abyss where the night / Never turns to daylight / She kept me in a Polaroid / That was pinned up on her wall…”
The album’s 7th track, “Tarantula”, is possibly the closest song to the genre of disco, containing shimmering synths, a catchy backbeat, and strumming electric guitar. The track continues the feelings of longing contrasted by its swirling production, forming into a unique disco ballad. Albarn’s lyrics also draw the listener to the dancefloor as he paints a story of lost love in a disco club. “Tarantula”'s production also places the bass guitar and steady drums to the forefront, as the listener can imagine the character of 2-D crooning beneath a shimmering disco ball.
Favorite Lyrics: “Through all of my tunes / I’ll dance tonight / With you frozen in the mirrored light…”
8. “Tormenta” (feat. Bad Bunny)
The album’s 8th track, “Tormenta”, features reggaeton star and pop sensationBad Bunny delivering rap verses and powerful vocals. The track begins with the peaceful sounds of a beach, building a scenic image for the listener. Similarly, Bad Bunny’s vocals effortlessly drift across the steady beat, hitting angelic high notes. Damon Albarn weaves the genre shift over to reggaeton effortlessly on “Tormenta” with steady beats and lush production, yet still managing to follow the album’s themes of longing and regret. This can be heard in Bad Bunny’s lyrics that detail a dream-like romance between him and a fleeting lover.
Favorite Lyrics: “Sun in the storm / Someone cryin’ / Something is said…”
9. “Skinny Ape”
The album’s second-to-last track,“Skinny Ape”, serves as the emotional climax of the entire album. Once again, Albarn’s masterful production is highlighted through the unique mix of acoustic guitars and shrill keyboards. The lyrics also tell a powerful story of moving toward change and overcoming feelings of helplessness. The song slowly builds and reaches its climax where Albarn shouts the song’s title repeatedly, matching the urgency of the instrumentation.
Favorite Lyrics: “Take my hands and pull me up again / Cheer me up and help me walk again…”
10. “Possession Island” (feat. Beck)
To close out the listener’s journey through Cracker Island, Gorillaz pack up their bags with a somber piano ballad that reflects on togetherness and hesitation when faced with the end of something. The 10th and final track on the album is “Possession Island”, which features a duet between Albarn and singer/songwriterBeck. The song begins with an acoustic guitar introduction, similar to the beginning of the previous track, only without a rising climax of acceptance and noise. Instead, the final song switches to the melancholy chords of a grand piano as Beck and Albarn sing the heartwrenching lines: “Should I ask you? For forgiveness? And open my heart?” Of course, this wouldn’t be a Gorillaz song without its signature quirkiness, no matter how somber the subject matter. This can be heard in the song’s instrumental break which features the strumming guitars and soaring trumpets, similar to a mariachi band. The song concludes by drawing to a final piano chord, leaving the listener to reflect on their “trip” to Cracker Island.
Favorite Lyrics: “Where the pearly gates remain open / And welcome me home / ‘Cause the time I came to California, I died…”
What are your favorite tracks from Cracker Island?