“An album made on an iPad? How will that work?”
That’s the question that probably ran through everyone’s mind when they heard that Damon Albarn’s next Gorillaz project was made on the road with Apple’s latest product. Its apps make for some interesting noises, but a whole album of them sounded like a disaster waiting to happen. Luckily, the former Blur frontman made it clear that other instruments were put into play as well, making the iPad another accessory in his long list of tools. So how does this fan club experiment hold up? Better than you would expect.
First off, if you come into this album looking for another Demon Days or Plastic Beach, you’re going to be disappointed. The Fall is a reward for the members of Sub-Division fan club and should be treated like any other fan club release. The record shows Albarn trying out new ideas wherever they may take him. This leads to a lot of filler but also to some beautiful moments that would fit on any of the past three Gorillaz releases.
Though the focus of the news leading up to this album has been the iPad, it’s the tracks that move in a more organic direction that work best. “Revolving Doors” is definitely a clear highlight, landing on the familiar ground of a smoothly upbeat, acoustic guitar and a nice bass beat. The iPad elements are all relegated to the background, barely noticeable beneath Albarn’s voice. Out of the entire tracklist, this is the one that should be a single. “Bobby in Phoenix” arrives later on to slap you awake with a strong, bluesy guitar after the gentle ride through the jazzy “Aspen Forest”. The guitar tone and simple backbeat work perfectly, both supporting and putting all the attention on everyone’s favorite 66-year-old soul singer. Womack’s voice isn’t as stunningly aggressive as “Stylo” or as sentimental as “Cloud of Unknowing”. Instead, it falls in the middle, combining his touch for the blues with a display of power that builds throughout the song.
The iPad isn’t useless, though. Many numbers manage to find a way to introduce this new element into the standard Gorillaz formula, making them feel fresh. “Amarillo” creates a metallic beat that explodes into synths from all angles. “Detroit” is an instrumental interlude that sounds like Daft Punk doing an ’80s TV theme. The most convincing argument for the iPad, though, comes in on “Little Pink Plastic Bags” and “The Joplin Spider”. The former kicks off with sluggish bass and drums. When Albarn’s voice falls in, it sounds like he’s singing on his back while we listen through a skylight. An icy keyboard arpeggio works as the finishing touch, moving back and forth like plastic bags “rolling on the highway”. As the synth fades away and “The Joplin Spider” starts, a voice stutters in and out like a bad radio signal. This is followed by a loud UFO drone and a hammer banging out a beat. Just as you get used to the new musical landscape, you’re thrown headfirst into a chaotic mix of effects. It’s a truly frenzied scene until Albarn speak-sings his way through the lyrics. It’s almost like the radio voice was a warning for the arriving chaos, and the vocals arrive in the aftermath of destruction. If any track displays good use of an iPad in the studio, it’s this one.
Sadly, many other songs show how uninspired results can be with Apple’s tool. The opener and first single, “Phoner to Arizona”, is a four-minute track of deep, squiggly rhythm and light whistling noises that go on for way too long. As a shorter intro to The Fall, it could have worked, but as a full track, it falls apart. “Hillbilly Man” starts off as a stripped-back affair with just a guitar and sad, haunting vocals. Unfortunately, after a minute, heavily distorted, electronic elements rip through its peaceful nature and smother everything else, ruining the song. “The Pariah of Space Dust” is a track full of metallic beats and uplifting drones that ultimately go nowhere.
Lyrically, the theme of this album seems to be loss of identity. Throughout the entire record, Albarn is looking for answers in the monotony of travel. Whether that’s asking, “Revolving door, what will I become?” or switching between radio stations, the questions are always there but never answered. The lyrical thread is easy to identify, but it’s not as heavy-handed as some of Plastic Beach’s environmental message. The Fall shows a journey through America, looking for hidden treasure in the “Aspen Forest” or a “Seattle Yodel”.
The Fall isn’t by any means perfect. It’s probably the weakest work Gorillaz has released to date. But as a gift for the fans, it’s definitely worth checking out. You can stream it for free from the official Gorillaz website, but if you want to download it, it’ll cost you the $35 fan club subscription fee. My advice? Stream it for free. There are a lot of innovative ideas, some strong moments, but also a good amount of filler. If you give it a spin, though, you’ll probably find some hidden treasures in these songs as well.