It's tough to settle into a happy middle with Gorillaz. The group demands either full attention or remote appreciation; it should be heard either on headphones at maximum volume, where it's easier to appreciate the sonic layers, or somewhere off in the distance, where it can work as hip sonic wallpaper. That's not a failing, necessarily, but it does make Gorillaz seem as much a project as a band. The project's goal seems pretty simple: Mix together some disorienting cut-and-paste DJ noise, throw in some guests (mostly rappers), tie in a loose, tone-setting narrative to go with the visuals of the CD booklet and videos, and hope the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. Gorillaz's self-titled 2001 debut didn't. Neither does its new Demon Days, but in both cases, the parts themselves are pretty impressive.
Ostensibly the product of four cartoon adventurers—and in real life, the work of Blur's Damon Albarn, Tank Girl cartoonist Jamie Hewlett, and Danger Mouse (who assumes the DJ slot previously held by Dan "The Automator" Nakamura)—Demon Days offers a darker variation on its predecessor's trippy world tour. The landscape has turned post-apocalyptic, and the songs try to find the sonic equivalent of titles like "Last Living Souls," "Every Planet We Reach Is Dead," and "Kids With Guns."
It's an unpleasant world, and while Albarn and company don't seem to be enjoying their time there, they at least send some intriguing dispatches and make some cool new friends, who usually set the tone of their tracks. For instance, "Feel Good Inc." sports an appearance from De La Soul over a beat that wouldn't sound out of place on one of De La's recent efforts. Shaun Ryder shows up for "Dare," a song that's not precisely a Madchester homage, but probably couldn't have existed without Happy Mondays. It's all quite innovative and cool, and Albarn's deadpan vocals suggest a Han Solo-like seen-it-all interplanetary weariness. Too bad it lacks a track as tight and memorable as the fluke 2001 hit "Clint Eastwood" to anchor it in place. The ideas fly by fast and thick, but never stick around long enough to make much of an impression, although the frequently used gospel choir has some inspired moments. Even in the futuristic world of Gorillaz, a few voices singing to the heavens remains as easy a shortcut to profundity now as it was when The Rolling Stones brought some in to beef up "You Can't Always Get What You Want." The more experimentation changes, the more the experiments stay the same.