If Gorillaz ever took themselves completely seriously, would it spell doom for their infectious virtual-band whimsy or make for some iconic, classic postmodernism? Originally just a playful side project for Blur frontman Damon Albarn, the animated quartet captured creative lightning in a bottle with the hip-hop-infused synth pop of 2001's self-titled debut and the '05 follow-up Demon Days. (Though much credit goes to Bay Area MC Del tha Funkee Homosapien, hip-hop producer Dan the Automator, and the anime-influenced art of Tank Girl artist Jamie Hewlett for the project's initial appeal.) The new Plastic Beach shoots for more gravitas with a loose environmentalism concept, but the sometimes tossed-off results remain as whimsical as ever; the ever-growing list of guest stars (this time including the Lebanese National Orchestra for Oriental Arabic Music and the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble) is more impressive than what those guests actually contribute.
Gorillaz have evolved into an even more amorphous concept, a revolving cast of characters gathered by Albarn to do their thing in the name of funky electroclash. Here, Bobby Womack and Lou Reed supply the rubber soul, while Mos Def, Snoop Dogg, and old buddies De La Soul uphold the hip-hop inflections alongside Brit grime MCs Bashy and Kano. "Superfast Jellyfish" uses a Happy Meal conceit to transport De La back to the silliness of 3 Feet High and Rising; tossing an '80s TV ad for Swanson's microwave breakfast atop a hard-ass breakbeat, they rap obliquely about eating up wack MCs like, well, jellyfish, a dish evidently as appetizing as starfish and coffee.
Elsewhere, though, the "Welcome to the World of the Plastic Beach" intro gets much more value from Snoop's infamously relaxed cadence than the actual content of his lazy freestyle. And the very idea of a soul legend like Womack working with Gorillaz proves too intriguing to satisfy expectations. "Cloud of Unknowing" fails to get much interesting use out of him, though "Stylo" fares a bit better: Behind a driving, 21st-century-Eurythmics pulse, Albarn sings of global overpopulation before Womack offers his own rousing verse, giving the record its best shot at "Clint Eastwood"-style crossover success.
Of course, what makes Gorillaz more fun than almost any other modern act — excepting Lady Gaga — is entirely unrelated to the music: They're not real. Hardcore fans have pored over the four characters' elaborate backstories for years now (Bassist Murdoc is a satanist; guitarist Noodle was trapped in Hell but mysteriously escaped recently, etc.). Their holographic appearance with Madonna at the 2006 Grammys is one of the greatest live spectacles of the Aughts. While Disney wastes capital remaking Yellow Submarine, the real money will be made when someone funds Gorillaz' own inevitable A Hard Day's Night.
For now, as always, this third studio effort is by turns atmospheric ("Glitter Freeze"), capricious ("Pirate Jet"), and electronically funky ("Rhinestone Eyes"), while Plastic Beach's more melancholy tracks — especially the exceptional "To Binge," featuring Swedish robo-soul quartet Little Dragon — are welcome holdovers from the group's more mystical, aborted Carousel album, giving the proceedings more of an emotional balance. Which raises the question: What impact would Albarn have if he ever lost his levity entirely? Whatever critique he's making on pop celebrity, environmentalism, or anything else gets diluted when his musical backdrop gets a little too flighty. Does anyone really want to hear a completely serious Gorillaz? Plastic Beach makes you wonder, but stops short of making you find out.