The furor that surrounded the release of last year's Humanz was deafening. Despite remaining among the most beloved musical acts of the new millennium, Gorillaz were sorely in need of a comeback, one that the general public was ready to give them with open arms. The best album of their career, 2010's Plastic Beach, was followed the next year by The Fall, a bewildering backtrack of a release that, ultimately, the less we say about the better.
Anything less than a stellar release would serve to be a disappointment, and sadly, Humanz fell far short of stellar. The star-studded guestlist that elicited such glee on first announcement (Vince Staples! Pusha-T! Grace Jones!?) devolved into a classic case of too many cooks in the kitchen. The finished product was at best, muddied; a Gorillaz record buried beneath a mountain of outside influences and beholden to their concept of "a party record of the end of the world" that outstayed its welcome about four tracks in. It wasn't bad exactly, but it felt more like a celebrity tribute to the band than a solid work from the group themselves.
Still, Humanz found at least moderate success, otherwise band-leader Damon Albarn would not have had the impetus to craft a follow-up a mere 14 months afterward. Clearly taking that record's criticisms to heart, he smartly created the latest Gorillaz project The Now Now as the antithesis of everything that Humanz represented; where Humanz was bloated by guest features, The Now Now has exactly three guests across two tracks. Where Humanz was stifled by its conceptual ethos, The Now Now was created solely for the band to have fresh material to tour with this festival season.
The purposefully light, breezy nature that Albarn harnessed in its creation comes across in each moment of The Now Now. True to its intent, it feels every bit the slice of lackadaisical summer listening one would expect to find at a beachside festival's headlining set. Opening track "Humility" is all bouncy synths and clap-along percussion – the audial equivalent of skipping down the street with a melting ice cream cone in hand. "Sorcererz" is a poolside strut that finds Albarn cooing "Everybody cool down" in its chorus, just in case there was any doubt about this track's intention.
Much to Albarn's credit, few could argue this doesn't sound like a Gorillaz record. "Sorcererz" could be plucked right out of the latter half of Plastic Beach, while "Kansas" hits that sweet spot between rumbling bass and twinkling synthesizers that mark the best of their catalog. Naturally, their lyrics of environmental ennui are an integral part of this familiar concoction, presenting such on-form musings as "Put my engine back into overdrive / So I can breathe again, photosynthesize again / With the green hills of my home," on the aforementioned "Kansas."
All of that said, the same qualities that allow The Now Now to persevere over Humanz inevitably end up being a detriment. As a collection of easy-listening funk, it is extremely middling. "Idaho" is so understated that the ear forgets its melody before the song has even finished, while the record's run of the final four songs blur incomprehensibly together; "Magic City," "Fire Flies," and "One Percent" are all downtempo affairs too meandering to soundtrack an elevator.
It would be one thing if Gorillaz set out to make an album of effortless funk ditties and the tunes were good, but it's another thing entirely if the melodies don't hold up. Without a clear statement of intent beyond 'good times,' The Now Now fails to justify its existence. "Hollywood" has the makings of a great Gorillaz song, complete with Snoop Dogg and Jamie Principle features, but it feels wholly derivative of their past collaborations; a sun-drenched memory of what one of their previous hits sounded like. It speaks measures that perhaps the album's strongest offering, "Lake Zurich," is an instrumental funk line on loop.
If you are looking for nothing more than an inoffensive soundtrack to your garden party that's appropriate for all ages, or you're lying on the beach too stoned to pick a playlist, The Now Now is ideal. Damon Albarn deserves props for actively addressing where Humanz went wrong, but otherwise, The Now Now is but another blip in Gorillaz' timeline. It seems that the true Gorillaz comeback record we were hoping for is somewhere in between these two full-lengths – one can only hope he continues taking notes moving forward.