Gorillaz played a hugely formative role in both my high school and college years. I played the hell out of their self-titled debut album Gorillaz throughout high school. I was fascinated by the smoke and mirrors that surrounded this animated band – it was unlike anything I’d ever seen or heard. I hadn’t grown out of cartoons either (come to think of it, I still haven’t) so that may have been another part of what made the whole package so appealing. I remember seeing Charts of Darkness (their first documentary) on MTV – and I was hooked. Entranced. I couldn’t get enough.
For as much of an impact as they had on me, I lost track of Gorillaz sometime in my college years. I didn’t come back to them until after I had started my junior year of college – that would be fall of 2005. Demon Days came out May 2005. I’m not sure what brought me back to Gorillaz, but I distinctly remember finding their website and realizing I had been missing out. Phase Two was Gorillaz at their best. To this day, Demon Days remains my favorite album of theirs as well as one of my favorite albums in general, so I’m happy to be revisiting it today.
When the album opens, it’s with a spooky atmospheric track that samples from George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. It’s a brief intro that fades into “Last Living Souls,” one of the more underrated tracks on this album, I think! It’s a nice sort-of pop track that contrasts interestingly with Damon Albarn’s nasally voice. (People say nasally in a bad way in most cases, but think of it in a good way. It reminds me of Bob Dylan in a lower register – which could be a bad thing for some people too, actually. All respect to Bob Dylan, I like to think I do a pretty funny impression of him.) “Are we the last living souls?” seems like kind of a hopeless question in this context, but the track sounds so uplifting to me. It sounds like the start to a journey – which is exactly what this album is supposed to depict.
One of the things that sticks out to me about this album is how political it is. It was made in the midst of the Bush years, and though Gorillaz are a British band, the whole world seemed to have strong opinions about Bush at that time. I mean, if you think about the years between Gorillaz (2001) and Demon Days (2005) then, yeah, that makes a lot of sense considering A LOT HAPPENED (9/11, WMDs, the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and the Iraq War itself). It was an extremely volatile time.
That brings me to the next track “Kids With Guns.” Pretty self-explanatory, and yet the lyrics are kind of a point of contention. I don’t think they were ever officially published (at least not in the liner notes) but to me Albarn was always saying “Think of something to suppress it” – though it should be “Think of something to say no to.” They kind of have the same meaning in the context of the song, in the end. The melody has this very pensive, contemplative mood that fits it for such a serious topic as “Kids With Guns,” sung in a staccato tone. It’s a great, great song…
Followed by another great song! “O Green World” has a fantastically weird intro. You’re not sure where it’s going until Albarn starts singing with vocals that are plaintive but so beautiful and expressive too. I think the emotion comes from a place of anxiety, just a bit. The world had changed all of a sudden – it was like we were all on a train with a crazed conductor with a single-minded agenda…which WAS kind of what was happening in the world. So there’s some hand-wringing going on here, but rightfully so. At the time, it was so uncertain where we were going or what would happen next. Albarn sings “O Green World/Don’t desert me now” with just the right amount of feeling. The bell tolls at the end convey a sense of impending doom, of time running out.
Next up comes one of my favorite tracks “Dirty Harry” – honestly, it’s one of the best on this album. There are so many layers of brilliance going on here. This is a track that’s clearly about the Iraq War. (And the cover for the single is obviously a nod to Full Metal Jacket.) It features rapper Bootie Brown spouting lyrics like “Your water’s from a bottle/Mine’s from a canteen” that just give me goosebumps. Then there are topical lines like “I’m the reason why you fill up your Isuzu” and “The war is over/So said the speaker with the flight suit on.” Using children to sing the chorus (“I need a gun to keep myself from harm”) was just a terrific decision. The whole song has this strangely light-hearted feel to it (before you get to the rap) that makes you want to dance – which ironically the song claims is a problem. I once read somewhere that Damon Albarn got the idea for that synthy-keyboard hook from Sesame Street. Sure sounds like it and, wow, does it work. One of their best, from any album.
The music video is a great companion to the song, making it very clear what Gorillaz thought of the Iraq War (the armored vehicle breaks down before it can go even half the length of a football field):
Of course, the most successful song off this album is “Feel Good Inc.” Geez, this song was everywhere. But for good reason – it’s a great song! And while it’s got the same cynical attitude as “Dirty Harry” it’s about something very different. Before embarking on Demon Days, Gorillaz had been working on a movie, an idea that was scrapped very quickly when they realized that Hollywood wanted something very different. It was a classic tale of artistic integrity versus corporate greed, as I understand it. Ridiculously hackneyed but true. Knowing that, this track is clearly a retelling that experience. “A melancholy town where we never smile”? Come on, so very clearly a diss to LA/Hollywood. Anyway, I really dig that bass line. And I think the general listening population did too. It’s still an amazing track ten years later.
“El Mañana,” while a really well done track, is not particularly my favorite. It seems like it’s about love, but it’s hard to discern the lyrics – again leading to variations depending on what website you visit. Anyway, I like the instrumentals and it’s a beautiful song, but it just doesn’t stand out very well. It’s a little too dreary. That isn’t a bad thing, I just don’t care for it here.
The opening guitar to “Every Planet We Reach Is Dead” is fantastic, but I’m afraid this is another one I don’t care too much for! Actually, I tend to skip these two tracks. The instrumentals are nice here too, but I just feel like nothing impressive is being done. They’re just kind of plain and pleasant, even though they’re sad. Well, there is one interesting thing about this song. I think I read that Albarn got the inspiration for it while riding a train across China. He mostly saw a lot of desert and wasteland (and there was something about hotel TVs playing Chinese-dubbed Betty Boop cartoons I think?) and it just gave him this impression of being on another world.
Now, “November Has Come” – I love this song. It’s got this twinge of weirdness to it that I really like, and a nice chorus too. “Well you know November has come/When it’s gone away” is one of those lyrics that makes you stop and listen. Albarn’s vocals sound like they’re coming through the fog. The whole song has this hollow, chilly, dark sound – like most Novembers in most places. I can feel the fall breeze blowing in somewhere between the claps and that bass line. The raps by MF Doom are calculated and perfectly timed and just a pleasure to listen to.
“All Alone” has a lot going on, aurally, but somehow it manages to pull it off – and it makes for another wonderful song. There’s a balancing act going on between Roots Manuva’s stellar, aggressive raps and Martina Topley-Bird’s all-too-brief and dreamy, angelic vocals. This song really picks you up and shakes you around (in such a good way), so having her clear away all the weirdness and noise for that time is a pleasant reprieve before diving back in. I love the contrast here. It’s beautiful.
The track fades into “White Light,” a sort-of alt-rock track that hasn’t got a lot to it, but still sounds super interesting. It’s all these simple sounds and repeated verses coming together that make it work. I think it’s brevity helps too. I can’t see this track working if it went on for too much longer. So it’s perfect at the length it is on the album! Much like the previous track, this one has this moment where it takes a breath in the middle.
Next up is another one of my favorite tracks – It’s “Dare”! It’s supposed to be “It’s there” but guest singer Shaun Ryder’s accent made it sound like “It’s dare,” and so the song got its name! This is just a purely fun dance track, happy and upbeat and making you want to get your body up and move it around. Yeah! Sometimes you just need one of those on your album, but it’s not like it’s just been thrown in – it’s really well done and deliberate. The music video is a lot of fun too:
“Fire Coming Out Of The Monkey’s Head” is interesting for the reason that it’s mostly a spoken-word track, featuring Dennis Hopper. The simple background music plays a great role in creating the atmosphere as Hopper tells the story of a peaceful, innocent town destroyed by the thoughtless acts of greedy strangers. It seems like a pretty obvious parable, but this was just one of the many topics that seemed to preoccupy singer Damon Albarn’s mind. And anyway it’s so vividly told. And when Albarn’s dreary vocals come in at the end, it’s just brilliant. (See? Dreary can be good.) I feel like it’s actually a pretty bold decision to put this weird (mostly) spoken word track on this album.
The final two tracks are just amazing (and both feature the London Community Gospel Choir – taking these songs to a whole different level). First we have “Don’t Get Lost In Heaven,” the track that signifies the beginning of the end of our journey. I love the chorus: “Dont’t get lost in heaven/They got locks on the gates.” Heaven is supposed to be a place you want to go, but here it’s a place you don’t want to be, at least not for very long if your curiosity gets the best of you and you DO find yourself there. The heaven here isn’t the religious notion of heaven – it’s the earthly idea of heaven, of having all the pleasures and distractions you could ever desire. It’s the over consumption of pop culture and forgetting who you are and the problems that exist in the world. This has been a major concern throughout Demon Days, and Albarn wants us to remember that here.
Finally, we have the title track “Demon Days.” It’s a wonderful, wonderful closing track. One of the best of any album. It sounds so uplifting and hopeful, but that’s not quite the case: “You can’t even trust the air you breathe/’Cause Mother Earth wants us all to leave/When lies become reality/You numb yourself with drugs and T.V.” But it’s still encouraging: “Pick yourself up it’s a brand new day/So turn yourself ’round.” So there’s hope after all. I can’t think of anymore words to describe this song. It’s just so, so beautiful and perfect as an ending track. I just get lost in it.
Demon Days and Phase Two were Gorillaz at their best and most prolific. They took their public image as a gimmick band and used it to surprise everyone with an amazing album. Meanwhile, the story of the virtual, fantasy aspect band became more developed and tangible. I didn’t even get into that here, but if you like Gorillaz, then their illustrated autobiography Rise of the Ogre is a must-read. During this time, more than ever, Damon Albarn and artist/co-conspirator Jamie Hewlett (also known for Tank Girl) were on the same wavelength and the same mission: to say something important about the state of the world. Give Demon Days a listen if it’s been awhile – or if it’s been never – and really listen to it. It’s an important album and it deserves legendary status.