When Gorillaz toured after their first album’s release, all the audience could see was their backlit shadows behind a movie screen. Damon Albarn & Co. were determined to maintain the fiction of their cartoon collective, an impulse that serves them well in Demon Days. Despite an overstuffed guest roster — De La Soul, the San Fernandez Youth Chorus, MF Doom, Roots Manuva, Dennis Hopper, and the London Community Gospel Choir all make appearances, and that’s not even everyone — producer Danger Mouse crafts a lucid and compelling aesthetic in Demon Days, a sound that marries the loose swagger of a California stoner with crackling funk lines lifted from the score of a low-budget horror flick.
The album’s coherence makes its weaker songs sound better than they actually are. ‘O Green World’, and ‘El Mañana’ never escape their bland melodies, and Dennis Hopper’s spoken allegory about “Happy Folk” in ‘Fire Coming Out of the Monkey’s Head’ comes off as preachy and strange. The best songs work by subverting expectation, ratcheting up tension that is never resolved, like someone aiming a loaded slingshot only to drop the stone at the moment before release. In ‘Kids With Guns’, a disaffected voice repeats the monotone phrase “kids with guns,” ending the verse with a repeated “easy does it” against a whirling siren sound. You expect the song to break open into angry chaos, but instead it launches into a loose and pleasant chorus. These startling bursts of melody erupt all over the album, from the iPod commercial single, ‘Feel Good Inc.’, to Martina Topley-Bird’s ethereal solo on the steel-drum inflected ‘All Alone’.
Demon Days will be a huge success precisely because of its catchy melodies, but its underbelly vibrates with disquiet, in diametric opposition to the hopeful “sunshine in a bag” of the first Gorillaz album. Guns show up everywhere, though there’s no overt violence, which almost makes for a more disturbing listen. The album’s zeitgeist is best summed up with this lyric from ‘Dirty Harry’: “I’m a peace-loving decoy/ready for retaliation.” Demon Days reflects the uneasiness of a world trying to forget that even the kids are armed, and shooting isn’t a question of if, but when.