Damon Albarn founded Gorillaz with his then-friend Jamie Hewlett in order to escape the fame being the frontman of Blur had conferred upon him. This cartoonish, animated side-project ended up being far bigger than Blur, breaking America and topping charts like no album of British social vignettes ever could. Loosely hip-hop but also shot through with a mass-market pop appeal, the music of Gorillaz developed from the scratchy, scrawny sketches of the eponymous debut, to the sophisticated, grown-up pop of Plastic Beach—but only via the squelchy soul of Demon Days.
Ignoring that album’s earworm-laden singles, what emerges is an album of melancholy hip-hop deeply indebted to the 1990s scene’s more fringe pursuits. The presence of MF DOOM, on the slinky “November Has Come” is particularly telling, his luscious rapping flowing like a river of sludge through a valley of bodiless background cooing, rooted down by a subterranean rhythm. On the track which follows, “All Alone” (as if the title wasn’t foreboding enough), the pace is more frantic, with vaguely dancehall double-kick drums, and the scrubbed-glamour keyboards beloved of reggae. But Roots Manuva’s verses speak of the titular loneliness, while Martina Topley Bird’s spell during the bridge is as hope-less as you would imagine.
At the time of Demon Days’ release, people thought “Fire Coming Out Of The Monkey’s Head” was plain ridiculous. Dennis Hopper, tight-lipped, intoning a deeply unsubtle parable which alludes to the resource-stripping and warmongering that characterised the middle of the noughties. Seven years later, it’s still hard to take seriously—but sometimes you have to look to the blackest humour to get your point across.
But the real core of Demon Days drops the pretence of rap and hip-hop for something more raw and untethered. Bobby Womack wouldn’t crop up on Gorillaz songs until the next album, but his shadow looms large over the album’s centrepiece, “Every Planet We Reach Is Dead”. Ike Turner’s keys start off at the centre of the universe, an electric piano providing an anchor for the squalls of guitar and ricocheting background vocals. Halfway through though, a second piano track enters, cracking ivory and generally exploring the farthest reaches of the song’s emotional heart. “I love the girl / But god only knows it’s / Getting hard to see the sun coming through”, sings Albarn, not exactly mining a novel thematic seam. The girl he loves has eyes for someone else; “What are we going to do?”, he asks, the chaos of the song’s arrangement providing a predictably beaten response.
By the time the album closes with a gospel-enhanced brace, we don’t really feel any resolution or salvation. Narratively, we have passed into the next place, because we were unable to fend off the overwhelming vice and horror of the “demon days”. The feel-good vibes of the title track might give the impression of redemption, but the lyrics tell a different story. The easy allure of escapism, hinted at in “Every Planet We Reach Is Dead” (“Picture on the dreamer / I’ll take you deeper / Down to the sleepy glow”), swallowed us up; no-one else was left to share in the tragedy; we were truly all alone.