Damon Albarn Songs And Impact From Gorillaz To Blur And More

Damon Albarn

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From Gorillaz to Blur and Beyond: The Significance of Damon Albarn

From the lo-fi indie of 90s Britpop sensation Blur, to the animated, genre-bending blockbuster Gorillaz, Damon Albarn has never been an artist at rest. Since the release of the 1990 single “She’s So High,” Blur’s first, the songwriter has released a seemingly endless stream of work encapsulating his own particular brand of subversive curiosity. Though nearly uniformly personal, particularly in later years, Albarn’s artistic appetite has never been satiable by way of mere reflection and nasal gazing. The ultimate goal has always been something bigger: something spanning continents, genres, languages, and generations. His work with Gorillaz brought Albarn’s aspirations to fruition, and he has not since ceased in carving out the broadest and most explicit representation of his artistic vision possible.

The story of Damon Albarn’s musical and professional journey goes back to the late 1980s at Goldsmiths College – since rebranded as Goldsmiths, University of London – where he would begin a partnership with bassist Alex James and guitarist Graham Coxon, who he’d previously met in secondary school. James and Coxon would prove to be two very important figures in Albarn’s life, and upon the addition of drummer Dave Rowntree, the foursome would form what would eventually become Blur.

Blur’s first album Leisure was released in 1991, and presented a sprightly shoegaze sound while incorporating elements of alternative rock. Albarn has since been open about his own antipathy toward the album, citing the band’s eagerness to appease record label representatives by adhering to the perceived popular sound of the time as a primary source of vexation.

With the band’s follow up album, Modern Life is Rubbish, Albarn made a concerted effort to incorporate aesthetics characteristic of traditional English work. This was in part to combat the rapidly expanding popularity of grunge music, brought about in no small part by the enormous success of Nirvana’s major-label debut album, Nevermind, released the same year as Blur’s own Leisure. Albarn drew inspiration from classic English bands such as The Kinks and the Who in constructing songs for the album, which benefited greatly from the burgeoning, dissident but incessantly interesting guitar playing of Graham Coxon. As Coxon continued to develop his sound on subsequent releases, his contributions, paired with those of Albarn, would form a lynch pin around which the band’s overall sound would flourish and thrive.

Damon Albarn Songs

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The Albarn/Coxon partnership draws many parallels to the classic John Lennon/Paul McCartney writing team around which The Beatles built their catalog. Coxon, introverted, fairly cynical, and in endless service to his art, was responsible for much of the bite in Blur’s music, as Lennon was with The Beatles. Albarn, staggeringly prolific, adept on multiple instruments, and blessed with an astonishing knack for crafting pop melodies at the drop of a hat, has very much always been a product of the Paul McCartney musical lineage.

The band became more ambitious with their third studio undertaking, Parklife. Defining the project as a loose concept album, Albarn continued the practice of structuring his lyrics around the lives of various characters, often representative of distinct facets of English culture. Blur began to build upon the sonic terrain they had established on previous efforts, now incorporating elements of synthpop, new wave, and experimental music into their alt-pop aesthetic. The band’s growing ambition brought about denser undertakings like tracks “This is a Low” and “Girls & Boys,” the latter of which would be a clear forerunner for what was to come with Albarn’s work with Gorillaz.

The Great Escape solidified Blur as bonafide superstars, in part due to the emerging rivalry between the band and Manchester rockers Oasis, who released their debut album, Definitely Maybe, the same year. The rivalry, much like that of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones in the mid-60s, was largely instituted and subsequently stoked by newspapers, tabloids, and various media institutions looking to capitalize on the perceived conflict.

The Great Escape produced a slew of hit singles for Blur, including “The Universal” and “Charmless Man,” and would achieve platinum status in multiple countries. Oasis would ultimately have the last laugh, however, despite their single “Roll with It” losing a highly publicized chart battle with Blur’s “Country House.” “The Battle of Britpop,” as it was dubbed, drew substantial attention to both bands. Oasis, the lesser known of the two bands at the time, likely benefited the most from the surge of publicity.

Oasis’ second album, (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?, was released in October of 1995 to massive commercial success, despite what was initially a less-than-enthusiastic response from the critical music press. The album broke Oasis in the United States, a benchmark which Blur had had in their sites since their debut. With a clear winner having been determined in “The Battle of Britpop,” Blur swiftly fell out of public favor, with frontman and band figurehead Damon Albarn bearing the brunt of the resulting hostility.

During this time, Blur were also beginning to experience problems internally. All members partook in the many excesses of the period, with James assuming the role of a rock and roll lothario and Coxon beginning a dark descent into alcoholism which would ultimately result in his departure from the band.

Despite these issues, Coxon and Albarn arrived at the decision that a stylistic shift in the band’s sound was necessary, and they set to work crafting an album influenced by the developing lo-fi and noise rock scenes in America. Albarn took to writing lyrics based on his own personality and experiences, a style of writing which he would continue to explore throughout his career. The resulting record, 1997’s self-titled Blur, divided critics, and set a new path forward for the band.

Numbers like “Beetlebum” harken back to the lush harmonies and abundant musicality of The Beatles, while tracks like “Song 2” embrace a punk aesthetic, implementing dynamic shifts typical of the fading grunge scene and a consolidated runtime that makes room for only the bare essentials. Album highlight “I’m Just a Killer for Your Love” finds Blur tackling the grunge sound as well as anyone had during the boom in the genre’s popularity years prior. Rooted in an indelible groove and adorned with Coxon’s gurgling, noise rock innovations, the track introduces the band to all new territory, asserting that there was more in them than what was typical of your run-of-the-mill, Top 40 act. The album’s fifth track and third single “On Your Own” features heavy synthesizers, and has been described by Albarn as “one of the first ever Gorillaz tunes.” This in spite of the fact that Albarn would not begin recording initial Gorillaz songs until the following year.

Damon Albarn

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The band continued its gravitation toward darker musical territory with the release of its sixth album, 1999’s 13. The album would be the last to feature guitarist Graham Coxon as a member, and he would not make a full-length record with the band again until 2015’s The Magic Whip. Lyrically, 13 is informed by the dissolution of Albarn’s long-term relationship with musician Justine Frischmann. As such, much of the material on the record is somber and brooding, and Albarn would make regular use of these aesthetics as part of his artistic repertoire on numerous projects going forward.

Much of 13 was informed by the musical restlessness of Blur’s two primary writers, Albarn and Coxon. Coxon, continually frustrated by the commercial and musical expectations placed on the group as a result of their early sound, delved deeper into lo-fi dynamics and began incorporating more experimental elements into the band’s music, including psychedelia. Albarn, at this point, was nurturing his own growing fascination with electronic music, and the development of this style would greatly inform the rest of the music he would make throughout his career. The album’s central atmosphere is evident in ruminative numbers such as “No Distance Left to Run” and “Tender.”

13 was released in 1999, marking Blur’s final album of the decade, and their final album to feature their full original lineup in anything but a limited capacity until the release of 2015’s The Magic Whip. The band dispersed following supporting tours for 13 to work on other projects. Coxon, still battling alcoholism, recorded a number of solo albums, while Albarn began a side project with animator Jamie Hewlett which would become Gorillaz. Albarn, along with his bandmates, was feeling constrained by the musical limitations of the Blur format.

“One of the reasons I began Gorillaz is I had a lot of rhythms I never thought I could use with Blur. A lot of that stuff never really seemed to manifest itself in the music we made together as Blur,” the songwriter once explained.

Albarn’s growing interest in hip-hop music began to manifest heavily in the new project, which was initially conceived as a comment on the contrived and manufactured nature of much of what was being aired on MTV at the time. The idea was to have a completely virtual band – designed by Hewlett – as the figurehead of the music, which Albarn himself would produce. This concept came about in part due to Albarn’s frustration with being expected to uphold his public image as a celebrity during the height of his success with Blur. An animated group serving as the focal point would allow him to focus solely on the music.

The debut album from the virtual band, the self-titled Gorillaz, was released in 2001, and displayed the widest breadth of genre exploration yet in Albarn’s work. The album’s production is primarily a hybrid of electronic programming and live instrumentation. Rapper, Del the Funky Homosapien, makes appearances on two of the album’s tracks, while producer, Dan the Automator, also worked extensively on the album.

Gorillaz tackles several disparate musical styles, incorporating elements of hip-hop, electronic music, trip-hop, punk rock, Cuban music, lo-fi, alternative rock, and others. Despite the wide variety of elements that make up the record, Albarn’s presence remains at the center of the proceedings, with the singer composing the bulk of the material and performing all the instrumental tracks with only a handful of exceptions.

Tracks like “Re-Hash,” “5/4,” and “Man Research (Clapper,)” are demonstrative of the funk which had a hand in inspiring the album’s creation. Blur drummer Dave Rowntree appears on two tracks, “M1 A1” and “Punk” which, as the latter suggests, bring a healthy dose of punk rock to the record. The songs on the album which make use of samples draw from inordinate sources, with samples from Bo Diddly, Muddy Waters, and 1800s English poet and dramatist Thomas Haynes Bayly coexisting in the track list.

Somber, introspective cuts like “Tomorrow Comes Today,” “Sound Check (Gravity,)” and “Latin Simone (¿Qué Pasa Contigo?)” are a continuation of the sound Albarn began developing with Blur albums Blur and 13. “Latin Simone (¿Qué Pasa Contigo?)” like much of the album’s songs, was originally sung by Albarn and was highly self-reflective. Albarn decided that guaracha vocalist Ibrahim Ferrer belonged on the track, and changed the lyrical perspective to second-person. Gorillaz was a success, and set the stage for Albarn’s approach to record-making for years to come.

Following the release of Gorillaz, Blur reconvened to produce a followup to 13. Morale was low, with members uneasy about Albarn’s success with his Gorillaz project outside the band. Coxon failed to even appear at initial sessions, and the band carried on as a trio. Coxon’s eventual appearance did little to ease the tension and awkwardness, and the guitarist would depart from the band altogether following these sessions. Coxon’s only contribution to the album which would eventually become Think Tank was culled from this session, and would be included in the track “Battery in Your Leg.” Coxon’s departure created a vacuum in the band which would be filled by Albarn.

Taking nearly full creative control of the sessions, Albarn wrote all of the album’s lyrics and performed all the album’s keyboard and guitar tracks, with the exception of the aforementioned “Battery in Your Leg,” which features Coxon. Much of the sampling and electronic instrumentation present in Gorillaz’ work is present here, along with elements of middle-eastern music which color the album with a unique flavor, and effectively contrast with the core band and surrounding lush, atmospheric overdubs. Think Tank was released in 2003, and following a supporting tour for the album, Blur quietly went on an extended hiatus with no foreseeable conclusion.

With Blur inactive, Albran focused his attention back to Gorillaz, with intentions to begin work on a second album. Producer, Danger Mouse, had emerged on Albarn’s radar due to the former’s work on the mashup album, The Grey Album, which combined a cappella tracks from Jay-Z’s The Black Album with sample tracks from The Beatles’ self-titled 1968 album, commonly known as The White Album. The resulting album, Demon Days, covered even more stylistic terrain, bringing strings and choirs into the fray and leaning heavily into hip-hop and electronic music, while incorporating an even broader range of features than its predecessor. Contributors to Demon Days include De La Soul, MF Doom, Ike Turner, Shaun Rider, Dennis Hopper, Bootie Brown, Roots Manuva, and Martina Topley-Bird.

The album was boosted by the success of first single “Feel Good Inc.” which featured an atmospheric, acoustic-guitar centered chorus and verses that followed a funky bass line and featured rapped vocals from legendary hip-hop trio De La Soul. The incubation of the sound Albarn would call “dark pop” was in full effect with Demon Days, and the sound would inhabit tracks like “El Mañana,” and “Every Planet We Reach Is Dead,” the latter of which features a scorching outro piano solo by Ike Turner. Further expanding the album’s horizons are the inclusion of the London Community Gospel Choir on the album’s final tracks, and narration by actor/director Dennis Hopper on the dystopian narrative “Fire Coming Out of the Monkey’s Head.”

The album not only solidified Albarn’s reputation as a curator of disparate styles and influences, it pushed what was previously a side-project into a stratosphere unapproached by Blur. Gorillaz had taken on a life of its own, and the formula which Albarn would incorporate on subsequent releases had been set in place.

Following the release of Demon Days, Albarn set about assembling yet another side-project, The Good, the Bad, & the Queen. The group featured a number of high-profile musicians, including Paul Simonon of The Clash, who would contribute to the next Gorillaz album and tour with the virtual band. These types of collaborative projects would become the norm for the singer, and were continuations of sorts  of the first project of this nature, 2002’s Mali Music. Albarn would produce a self-titled album with the group before producing Journey to the West, a soundtrack album for the stage musical, Monkey: Journey to the West. It is around this time that Albarn’s prolificity began to rapidly increase. He would produce eight more collaborative efforts of this nature over the years while continuing his work with Gorillaz and recording three solo albums.

Albarn’s solo work can often take on the feel of a Gorillaz album, given that he is in the center of both worlds. The primary difference in these works is the exclusion of the signature features which characterize Gorillaz releases. The solo work also tends to dive more into the personal aspects of Albarn’s artistry, and can often take on a folky, pastoral feel.

Subsequent Gorillaz releases would continue to blur genre lines and bring together musicians from seemingly unrelated corners of the music world. 2010’s Plastic Beach was hailed as rich both musically and conceptually, and featured contributions from Bobby Womack, Snoop Dogg, Lou Reed, Mos Def, De La Soul, and others. Colorful production and instrumentation perpetuate Plastic Beach. Animated numbers such as “Sweepstakes” and “White Flag” contrast with thoughtful tunes like “Cloud of Unknowing” with Bobby Womack, and “Broken.”

The Fall was released the same year, and was notable for being recorded during the Escape to Plastic Beach Tour. Recorded in its entirety on an iPad, The Fall featured many tracks cut in hotel rooms, much in the same way as Jackson Browne’s 1977 album Running On Empty, which was also recorded on tour. The album harkened back to the dark, lo-fi experimentation of later Blur albums, embodied in tracks like “Amarillo” and “Revolving Doors.” Notably, the record incorporated significantly fewer guests than was usual for a Gorillaz project.

Gorillaz was put on hold following The Fall, and Albarn turned his focus to a number of collaborative efforts, not the least of which was the Blur reunion album, The Magic Whip. Gorillaz returned in 2017 with Humanz, a dance-infused topical concept record whose contributors included Grace Jones, Danny Brown, Mavis Staples, Pusha T, and Vince Staples, among others.

Albarn has stated that although Humanz was constructed as “an emotional response to politics,” but not as a piece of political commentary in and of itself. References made by any of the album’s many guests to actual political figures were edited out. Humanz began a greater shift toward dance and electronic music for Albarn, who specifically cited the band Simple Minds as a source of inspiration during this time. This heavier focus on dance and electronic styles is represented in tracks like the brooding “Saturnz Barz” and “Carnival.”

This was quickly followed by 2018’s The Now Now, 2020’s Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez, and 2021’s Meanwhile EP. The minimal, electronic aesthetic present throughout The Now Now aligns it more closely with The Fall than other records. The sprawling ambition of Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez is more in line with projects like Plastic Beach and Humanz.

Like most significant artists, Damon Albarn’s career has been one of constant evolution. His restless artistry and musical fearlessness brings to mind those who came before him on the great artistic quest. Figures such as David Bowie, Bob Dylan, Frank Zappa, and Neil Young, who could never make the same album twice, laid the groundwork for the exploratory nature of a career such as Albarn’s. Interestingly enough, Albarn’s work with Gorillaz displayed a vulnerability and autobiographical approach that seldom emerged in his work with Blur, despite his being the face of the band. Perhaps Albarn’s status as the face of the band is what prompted a hesitancy to open up, and the anonymity of Gorillaz provided a platform through which he could feel comfortable doing so.

In any case, Albarn’s artistry is not defined solely by his tendency to bring together disparate elements or even by his undeniable gift for melody. The significance of Damon Albarn is reflected in the whole, which is infinitely more than the sum of its respective parts. The ability to thrive in so many contrasting arenas of sound, to collaborate so efficiently and effectively with so many artists, to bare his own soul without the music becoming trite, and to continue to display a burning creative desire after decades of industry success, represents an integrity and utility which has long-since died out by the later stages of most successful careers.

Perhaps most importantly, Albarn has made a career not simply of fusing together various genres, but of providing clear evidence of the common ground apparent in these disparate styles. The work enforces the idea that the lines dividing the music, and the people making it, are inherently inconsequential, and are perhaps best left unacknowledged. Damon Albarn has continually redefined the perception of what pop music can be, and given his recent outpouring of material, shows no signs of slowing down any time soon.

Damon Albarn Songs And Impact From Gorillaz To Blur And More article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2021

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