Gorillaz has always been political, but on Humanz they’re finally smart about it. More than ever, Damon Albarn has given up the mic to his guests and let them air their grievances about the political climate on both sides of the Atlantic. This is good, as Albarn’s protest songs tend to run Banksy-shallow. This is a guy who once made an album called Democrazy and wrote an entire song about how people who like fast food are brainless jellyfish. Even here, his grievances are mostly about VR and chemtrails. But listen to Vince Staples on “Ascension”: “This is the land of the free/ Where you can get a Glock and gram for the cheap/ Where you can live your dreams long as you don’t look like me/ Be a puppet on a string hanging from a fucking tree.” Jesus.

The first single “Hallelujah Money” sadly omits its original ending, where guest poet Benjamin Clementine barks the title and a sampled SpongeBob starts crying. In a delicious in-joke, the sample comes from an episode where SpongeBob is told “You’re fired!,” and we all know whose catchphrase that is. Still, it’s refreshing to hear Clementine speak in riddles instead of feeding themes to us. Even “We Got the Power,” where the chorus belts “We got the power to be lovin’ each other,” is smart because it doesn’t present spreading love as the only solution to our problems, as so much flower-power music does. The world doesn’t change as simply as that, but a lot of our work would be done if we just started seeing other humans as, well, humans.

Albarn spends most of Humanz away from the mic. When he shows up, it’s through a distant phone filter, like some sort of highbrow Timbaland. Some fans might be disappointed by the lack of great Albarn-sung ballads in the vein of Plastic Beach’s “Empire Ants” or “To Binge.” In fact, there’s a lot here that’s missing. There are no big, brilliant pop hits like “Clint Eastwood” or “Dare” or “Feel Good Inc.” The interludes are quick and unobtrusive; Humanz doesn’t go the extra mile to remind you it’s a concept album. This is a different kind of Gorillaz record, and it’s likely to be a grower if only because most fans will find certain expectations quickly shattered.

It’s also arguably their best record front-to-back. It’s almost all good, and its clunkers aren’t bad but inexplicable, like the ephemeral gibberish of “Charger” (who the hell hires Grace Jones just to cackle on the intro?) And its songs barrel into each other. There’s an exhilarating sense of momentum on Humanz as the songs get louder and louder until the whole thing explodes at the end with the one-two exorcism of “Hallelujah Money” and “We Got The Power.” It feels like a dance party, and indeed it’s as concerned with confronting our problems as escaping from them; “Sex Murder Party” and the lusty Kelela-Danny Brown duet “Submission” are pure hedonism. These songs are ramshackle and terrifying, harkening back to that time in the 2000s when the best chart productions sounded like a cartoon character tumbling face-first into a pile of bricks.

Perhaps Humanz’ biggest surprise is how little it sounds like a grand return. Save for The Fall, the iPad-crafted victory lap that followed 2010’s baroque-as-fuck epic Plastic Beach, it’s the shortest Gorillaz album. There are moments where the kinks in the production show, especially on the early house banger “Strobelite,” which was obviously constructed from MIDI presets. And though it’s the most overtly polemic Gorillaz record – no surprise there – it doesn’t rage against a unified machine. It’s not about Trump or Brexit. If one of Albarn’s guests is mad about something, he lets them be mad. Humanz resembles nothing so much as a party where people aren’t afraid to talk about real shit. And isn’t that the way parties should be?

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