Damon Albarn talked about retiring Gorillaz, but instead he made a new album, almost immediately after Plastic Beach. The Fall is low-key and concise, the shortest Gorillaz album. It only has one guest vocalist (Bobby Womack on "Bobby In Phoenix"), and even Albarn's presence is muted. His lyrics are often simple, fragmented chants (e.g. "little pink plastic bags blowing on a highway") that barely seem to rise above the music. Many songs sound like vignettes: only one is over four minutes long, and seven are under three.
What this means is, The Fall is as close as Gorillaz have ever come to making a pure electronic album. For the first time, we get a chance to focus on all those weird sound clips, effects, textures and layers that were always bubbling beneath the surface of Gorillaz albums. They come to the forefront and inspire a new emphasis on atmosphere. The instrumental opening track "Phoner To Arizona" starts with a fuzzy digital bass sound, fairly close to Plastic Beach, and adds some synth beeps from the same album, but also brings in dark, uneasy strings and a rhythmic hook that sounds like it was made by distorting the pitch on Albarn's voice and then chopping it up.
You can hear Plastic Beach in the rhythm section, the beats have the same tinny, cheap drum-machine sound. Maybe Plastic Beach was actually recorded on an iPad, too! But, surprisingly, the music on The Fall actually has more detail. Even the idyllic acoustic guitar line in the beginning of "Hillbilly Man" is more technically and rhythmically interesting than any ballad from Plastic Beach. The best tracks are the instrumentals. The biggest stand-out is the strutting, cinematic, horn-driven "The Snake In Dallas." But the breezy synth lead in "Detroit" is adorable and gentle, and the interplay between bright keyboard background and moody minor-key organ in "Shytown" (with some vocals, but it feels like another instrumental) creates a delicate mood, thoughtful but not gloomy.
The pacing is excellent, and short as the songs are, they reveal a surprising amount of variety. "Hillbilly Man" switches gears completely from acoustic guitar to trip-hop beats, dirge-like synths and scraping noises, but the same downbeat tone persists through the entire song. "California And The Slipping Of The Sun" kicks into a pretty great techno groove, but only close to the song's end. The production (but not the composition) is fairly simplistic and one-dimensional, the instruments sound compressed and artificial, but they are often manipulated in interesting ways, for example the desolate synth-chirping in "Little Pink Plastic Bags." Somehow the garish production style matches the somber mood and the album's overall concept. Apparently, it was recorded while on tour, and it has an atmosphere of transience and impermanence, sitting in some anonymous hotel room, looking out the window onto the usual highway, city or airport views and just killing time until something happens. "Slipping Of The Sun" even has what sounds like clips from a news broadcast or PA announcement.
It'd be a miracle if there wasn't any filler. "The Joplin Spider" is blaring synth noise (that can be good, but not with this flat production), and "The Speak It Mountains" takes too long to get going, with nearly a full minute of voices repeating "it is the dawn" before any music shows up. But even those two songs aren't a total loss. "Spider" brings in more melodic keyboards in the second half for a more trance-like sound. It fades out almost immediately on arrival, but what can you do? And "Mountains," once it gets over the voices, has a very relaxing two-note synth loop. It sounds like a nice intro to a song about the dawn, which unfortunately does not show up. "Aspen Forest" is a pleasant bit, not very memorable at first, but then a cascading harp-like phrase livens up the ending.
A couple of songs are basically just typical Albarn ballads: "Amarillo" sounds like "Herculean" from The Good, The Bad And The Queen," whereas "Revolving Doors" is a shuffling mope like "Rhinestone Eyes." I don't suppose we can blame him for playing to his own strengths. Over the past ten years, he's become an amazing crooner.
This may become a very under-rated album. There is no big single (in fact, no obvious single at all), the promotion is relatively modest, and yeah, the album was made in a month. One might be tempted to dismiss it as an insubstantial EP, collector bait like G-Sides or D-Sides. In fact, The Fall might even be better than Plastic Beach.