Gorillaz began as a lark but turned serious once it became Damon Albarn’s primary creative outlet following the slow dissolve of Blur. Delivered five years after the delicate whimsical melancholy of 2005’s Demon Days, Plastic Beach is an explicit sequel to its predecessor, its story line roughly picking up in the dystopian future where the last album left off, its music offering a grand, big-budget expansion of Demon Days, spinning off its cameo-crammed blueprint. Traces of Albarn’s Monkey
opera can be heard, particularly in the hypnotic Mideastern pulse of “White Flag,” but Damon’s painstaking pancultural pop junk-mining no longer surprises -- when hip-hop juts up against Brit-pop, it’s expected -- yet it still has the capacity to delight no matter which direction the Gorillaz may swing. Lou Reed’s crotchety croak on “Some Kind of Nature” has the same kind of gravitational pull as Mos Def leading the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble through the intensely circling “Sweepstakes,” while the group reaches new heights of sparkling pop on “Superfast Jellyfish,” aided by the return of De La Soul -- the rappers who propelled “Feel Good Inc.” -- and an appearance from Gruff Rhys, the Super Furry Animals frontman who is an ideal fit for Gorillaz (possibly because SFA’s genre-bending pop and Pete Fowler artwork clearly paved the way for Albarn and Jamie Hewlett’s collaboration). A common thread among all these tracks is that they find Albarn ceding the spotlight to his fellow musicians, preferring to be the puppetmaster behind the curtain, and Plastic Beach works best when he’s the composer and producer, finding hidden strengths within his guests -- having Mick Jones and Paul Simonon for the elastic title track, coaxing some powerful performances out of Bobby Womack -- but often when Albarn takes center stage his laconic drawl lets the air out of the balloon. Curiously, much of this arrives toward the beginning of the album, the record gaining momentum as it unspools, working toward its climax, but the overall album accentuates moody texture over pop hooks. This emphasis means Plastic Beach is the first Gorillaz album to play like a soundtrack to a cartoon -- which isn’t entirely a bad thing, because as Albarn grows as a composer, he’s a master of subtly shifting moods and intricately threaded allusions, often creating richly detailed collages that are miniature marvels.