Pop Art: Tracing the Artistic Development of Gorillaz
On Your Own delineates a particular brand of late 90s ennui directed at falsities: it lampoons bus-riding, camcorder-wielding tourists and a culture where emotions are “bought mail-order.” Spirituality is transactional, and reality is cheap simulacra.
Thematically, it’s little surprise that Blur frontman and Gorillaz co-creator Damon Albarn has since described On Your Own as “one of the first ever Gorillaz tunes.” It was released in 1997, a year before Albarn and comics artist Jamie Hewlett formed their “virtual” band, whose fictional lives have come to be unquestioningly accepted as just as “real” as any other pop confection.
Hewlett’s initial character designs place them firmly in the counterculture comics tradition: the linework is pronounced, postures exaggerated, colours flat. The band could easily be the younger cousins of the riot grrl-esque eponymous star of his 90s strip Tank Girl, and the artist brings the same energetic artwork to Gorillaz, forming an aesthetic that married rebellion with cuteness.
The caricature-like proportions of each Gorillaz member’s physical features, gaits and gestures neatly placed them in the boxes set out for “traditional” manufactured pop groups: the cute one, the serious one, the pin-up, the bad boy. There’s the badass stoop and sullen, chemically-enhanced come-to-bed eyes of bassist Murdoc; the puppy dog eyes and chip-toothed charm of frontman 2D; adorable Manga-like tween guitarist Noodle; and hoody-sporting behemoth drummer Russel, drawn as an amalgamation of hip-hop tropes, finished with a suspicious stare.
The evolution of the characters’ illustration style has been demarcated by distinct “phases,” to use the Gorillaz terminology, with new album Humanz putting us in “Phase Four.” Each album release and the accompanying ephemera – videos, printed books, models, apps, and so on – bears a style that iterates on its predecessor, yet in terms of character design nothing has been altered too drastically over the past 19-odd years. Thanks to these distinct identities, the band are firmly their own entities rather than feeling like visual assets for some Albarn-led troupe, crouching Wizard of Oz-like behind a curtain.
One of the earliest shifts was in ameliorating the flat blocky colours of Gorillaz’ debut with textures and more subtle palettes in the lead up to the release of second album Demon Days. The record heralded more mature and complex visual representations to complement a more hip hop-led sound, dense production values at the hands of Danger Mouse, and an ever-starry collab list including MF Doom, De La Soul, Shaun Ryder (!) and, bizarrely, Dennis Hopper.
By 2010’s concept album Plastic Beach, the art direction had been dialled up to bombastic new levels: the cover uses lysergic, plasticine-like 3D imagery to depict a futuristic trash island. Shelving band portraiture for landscape hints at the broader enviro-political concerns of the record and its focus on big-name collaborations with the likes of Bobby Womack, Snoop Dogg, and Lou Reed. Hewlett has since briefly discussed this move away from “cartoons” as something to be “rectified” on the follow-up; but what’s become evident is that this hyperreal three-dimensionality wasn’t entirely a success. Phase Three was very much about CGI and realistic details like shadows, yet it was perhaps almost too real, removing the sense of this foursome inhabiting a mysterious otherworld.
Humanz’s artwork signals a return to Gorillaz’ earlier 2D graphic style, with flatter character design against richly detailed 3D backgrounds. The Phase 4 aesthetic has a more mature finish to the characterisation: the lines are sharper, and there’s a more premium feel.
The gradual development of this more intricate illustration style helped accommodate Gorillaz’ tricky live setup. While Albarn and other musicians sometimes appeared on stage as silhouettes, the Gorillaz themselves were enlarged as the stars of their own show, appearing with increasingly sophisticated animations and bombastic backdrops until eventually evolving into eerie 3D holograms. Despite the rapid recent developments VR technology, early Gorillaz holographic efforts still look impressive, if slightly laggier than we’re used to today. Few Gorillaz elements haven’t stood the test of time, the main being the band’s typography: the faux-rebellion of the red graffiti-like letterforms of the debut album is wince-inducing, and was already toned down to sensible white sans serif lettering for Demon Days.
Jamie Green, a media planner at agency the7stars, which worked on the Humanz campaign, describes a “connective tissue” which runs through each release – mainly in their videos. In short, this overarching narrative is a dystopian tale in which the band’s Demon Days habitat was destroyed, forcing them onto Plastic Beach’s island built from detritus. The apotheosis of this playful yet apocalyptic trajectory is to be found on Humanz, Green suggests. Certainly, existential unease processed through cheeky rebellion and the joy of music plays out beautifully in the interactive 360 degree animation for Saturnz Barz (Spirit House). The video explores familiar horror movie haunted house tropes (a callback to Demon Days’ zombie film sampling, perhaps, which Pitchfork described as “Danger Mouse & Albarn [making] like they’re Dario Argento & Goblin”) before catapulting us into an outer space wilderness.
This new Gorillaz material was mooted in early 2015, when Hewlett posted new pictures of Murdoc and Noodle to Instagram and later confirmed, “Yes. Gorillaz returns.” His images were striking for their depth, using rich textures that echo both printed halftone and computer generated pixels, a neat distillation of Gorillaz’ ability to transcend the on- and offline worlds. The sleeve itself is another smart Demon Days callback: the band’s faces are arranged in the same four square grid, but now bear a painterly quality that signals an aesthetic and sonic maturation.
For the first time in Gorillaz’ history the characters have aged in accordance with the seven years that have passed between this record and Plastic Beach: “They’ve definitely grown up – Murdoc isn’t quite as much of a party animal, and Noodle is suddenly 19, not 12 – but I don’t think the evolution of the graphic style is representative of their ages,” says creative William Millner. “The style might be more sophisticated, but the band is just a little older and maybe a little stupider.”
Consciously or not, Gorillaz career-long knack for engaging fans in new ways has consistently held a mirror up to trends in digital design and branding campaigns. Fans want unfettered, unedited access to their idols: Gorillaz broadcast apparently candid “live chats”, animated with the experimental touches (reflections, underwater woooziness) that proliferate on Tumblr. The campaign around the release of Humanz was distinctly visuals-led: as with previous releases, a new microsite was created; and
the album is accompanied by not one but two apps, as well as a global “Humanz House Party” listening event utilising geo-specific digital technology.
“The visual style and the deliberately abstract way the band’s narrative unfolds mirror their musical style, and the experimentation they throw into each track,” says Green. “The two are inextricably entwined, especially as the visuals get more experimental so do the instrumentations and collaborations.”
Gorillaz merged virtual and the “real” lives years ahead of Instagram et al – this motley bunch encouraged the “cross platform interactions” and aced the “digital storytelling” that branding agencies dream of before such jargon was even “ideated.”
For all Gorillaz’ virtualness, their fans engage with them with a sincerity, joy and hysteria that make them as “real” as any other popstars. The smart and beautifully crafted visual renderings of the band succeed because they’re simple on the surface and conceptual to the core; and demonstrate the potent and powerful things that can be achieved when art and music collide in the right hands, human or otherwise.
For the rest of our Gorillaz coverage, visit Gorillaz: Come Inside