Amidst the clamour and headlines surrounding Damon Albarn’s use of an iPad to record the Gorillaz’ fourth album, the music itself was kind of overlooked. Now, nearly four months after its Christmas Day fan-club release, The Fall is making it into shops as one of the key draws of Record Store Day.
Should we care? Sure. After the exuberance and the clutter of Plastic Beach The Fall strikes a low-key note, a palette-cleanser to a predecessor that came hyped via CG trailers and sprawling, near-hubristic live shows. “If Plastic Beach was an island”, said 2D via the band’s Twitter feed, “The Fall is its jetty… just a nice bit of… er… wood sticking out the side.”
Recorded in hotel rooms and on highway interstates during Gorillaz’ U.S. autumn tour it’s an album that has the feel of movement, whether through the cities and states name-checked in song titles or the sparse, minimalist arrangements, like a backpacker traveling light. Glimpsed details and conversational fragments pepper the tracks, from the little pink plastic bags blowing on the highway to discussion of a spider in Joplin, Missouri, whilst half-heard radio and TV snippets obscured in static lend The Fall a transient, migratory feel, a travelogue penned in Garageband.
No surprise, then, that it’s more a collection of ideas than full-fledged songs, tracks rarely developing beyond drifting, daydream whims. Back in December this didn’t matter so much: it was a free download after all, a gift to the fans – and besides, it was Christmas. The critics were resting in their caves, tendrils of flame curling around scaly nostrils. But a paid physical release carries greater expectations, and attracts a scrutiny that The Fall neither wants – Albarn’s press comments have consistently downplayed it – nor can quite stand up to.
But that’s not to say it should be ignored. The opening triple is excellent, from Phoner To Arizona’s caffeinated twitch through to Albarn’s wearied drawl on Revolving Doors and Hillbilly Man, synth loops and backing samples sounding sleep-deprived and worn. There’s a melancholy here lurking between the 8-bit bleeps and Casio drums, like Crystal Castles coming down in the dawn haze or Hot Chip trading irony for a moment’s introspection, all the more disarming from a band that uses primary-coloured animations as its public face.
It’s showcased in Shy-town and Little Plastic Bags, small, sad pieces that drag electronic music away from the club lights and into a windswept corner for a cry. But right across the album Albarn has pared back the excesses, somehow eking pathos from a glossy touchscreen pane.
This approach is not a complete success, with parts of The Fall – Aspen Forest in particular – sounding like something that would drift out of an elevator in a low-end Vegas hotel. And the reticence to allow tracks to build sees penultimate offering California & The Slipping Of The Sun fading away, frustrating seconds after it’s grabbed our attention. But at its best, as in the Bobby Womack-fronted Bobby In Phoenix – the only guest vocalist here, in marked contrast to Plastic Beach’s rush-hour of contributors – this is an appealingly unassuming collection, an E.P. that’s somehow stumbled into a more elevated role.
The Fall will doubtless be accused of lacking ambition, of failing to replicate or even strive for the bombast and scale of its predecessor. But that’s the point: any attempt there would have failed. Instead we have something rather more surprising: an electronic album that manages to sound intimate, late-summer warmth turning to autumnal melancholy, and a cartoon band that suddenly seems a little fragile.