Here's something you should know right off the bat about Plastic Beach: It's not really a Gorillaz album. It's more like, "Friends of Damon Albarn, Featuring Production by The Gorillaz".
Here's something else you should know about Plastic Beach: This is their "serious" album, which means the Gorillaz and Snoop Dogg and Lou Reed and Mos Def and De La Soul are going to try to tell you about the evils of pollution and consumerism.
That leads me to the final thing you should know about Plastic Beach: It's not all that great.
This is the poppiest Gorillaz album released thus far-Albarn freely admits as much. This wouldn't be such a problem if there was any sense of adventurousness in playing with the pop music format, but there isn't. The orchestral sections are at best pleasant and at worst tired sounding, sparking not so much feelings of "Wow, I've never heard the Gorillaz do anything like this before" as much as "Wow, another Goddamn pop group falling into the strings-and-horns act, really?" That aside, the synths and beats aren't up to snuff. Much of the time it sounds like Albarn is trying to achieve a pop meets hip hop vibe, and most of the time it results in something so deflated and palatable as to be completely forgettable. "Stylo" in particular sounds like an Afrikaa Bambaataa track that hit the cutting room floor, for good reason. Bobby Womack sings like he's on a much better song, which is admirable for him, but it doesn't make the track any less hackneyed.
Most of the songs on this album are collaborations, 12 out of the 16 to be exact, and most of the time they don't work out so well. Lou Reed has never been what one might call "excitable", but he sounds like he'd rather be doing anything else in the world on "Some Kind Of Nature", and if we're being honest with ourselves, Snoop Dogg has never really been "good", per se. De La Soul did the charming goofball thing way better during the early '90s/late '80s than they do on "Superfast Jellyfish", although it's still an entertaining enough song, and it's hard to figure out why Paul Simon needed to be involved with the title track at all. Giving credit where credit is due, Mos Def absolutely murders the track on "Sweepstakes" and, as I alluded to above, Womack is a pleasure whenever he decides to sing on the album.
All this in mind, it's not hard to believe that the best songs on Plastic Beach are the ones that feature no collaborators. "Rhinestone Eyes" and "Melancholy Hill" are undoubtedly the best songs on the album, the first being a throwback to the sharper, more driven Gorillaz tracks of old and the second being a gorgeous, mesmerizing song that's sure to be stuck in your head for the rest of the day, in a completely positive way. It reinforces the idea that Albarn really should have spent less time trying to cram as many of his friends on as many of the tracks as possible and spent more time doing what he does best, which is making creative, melodious electronica songs.
There's nothing on Plastic Beach that really takes you by surprise or grabs ahold of you in any lasting fashion. You're not going to get any bursts of insanity like "White Light" or anything that touches the brilliance of "Fire Coming Out of the Monkey's Head" from Demon Days. You're not going to get any of the acid-drenched dance tracks that define Gorillaz' b-sides. You're not even really going to get anything you can dance to. You're going to get a series of tracks that float melodiously but blandly from one to the next, and for the most part that's all you're going to get.
Plastic Beach is a dull, dry affair that completely lacks any of the manic creativity that has defined the Gorillaz' previous releases. It's a hodgepodge of genres and ideas that you've already seen before, diluted for maximum possible mass appeal. For an album that purports to be anti-consumerist, Plastic Beach is by far the most predictable, shopworn release from the Gorillaz thus far. If this is what Damon Albarn needed a five year break to create, let's hope the next release comes out as quickly as possible.