Quite frankly, I’m surprised with how Damon Albarn’s career has turned out. When Blur was put on indefinite hiatus back in 2004, I thought that the Britpop superstar was destined for an unremarkable solo career. After all, how did most of our favorite frontmen of the 90s cope after their massively successful bands broke up? We’ve seen poorly received solo projects such as Billy Corgan’s TheFutureEmbrace, creations of mediocre “supergroups” such as Velvet Revolver that had too much ego for the band to survive, and even head-scratching embarrassments at making a crossover that proved damaging for the artist’s brand (Chris Cornell’s Timbaland-produced *Scream*, anyone?). All of the aforementioned attempts at becoming solo successes ultimately failed, and in the past few years, many of these frontmen got back together with their former bands, primarily to regain the artistic credibility that they once thoroughly enjoyed but had now become tainted.
I expected Albarn to similarly return to his band in shame after he realized that none of us cared about what he did after Blur. But in a strange twist of fate, the exact opposite happened. In the past 10 years, Albarn formed Gorillaz, a band that was actually taken seriously in the public and critical eye; fronted The Good, The Bad & The Queen, a supergroup that actually worked; and even wrote the wildly successful Monkey: Journey to the West, an electronica-tinged, Asian-influenced opera that sold out many of London’s biggest venues. Not only has Albarn maintained his relevance in the past decade, but he has also expanded his brand, properly experimenting and integrating his sound with different styles of music and gaining recognition as a serious musical visionary as a result.
Which brings us to his latest release, Rocket Juice & the Moon. Albarn again takes his music in a different direction, abandoning the electronic depths of Gorillaz and the conventional rock of Blur for the Afrofunk and psychedelia of Rocket Juice. This isn’t a total surprise; Albarn had previously incorporated African elements on the final Blur album Think Tank, but Rocket Juice & The Moon provides a vehicle for him to explore the genre in full.
Of course, Albarn rarely delves into his ambitious experiments alone, and Rocket Juice is no exception. To round out the band, Albarn has brought back Tony Allen, his drummer for The Good, The Bad & The Queen and one of the pioneers of the Afrofunk movement, and has brought in a new collaborator, Flea, of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, on bass. The two play off of each other very well; Allen’s African-influenced drumming pushes Flea’s signature bassline into a previously unheard direction of world music, notably on the lead single “Hey Shooter” (featuring “The Queen of Neo-Soul” Erykah Badu). Flea’s notorious funk influence allows Allen to incorporate a more dance-y beat, as evident on instrumentals such as “Rotary Connection” or “Night Watch” creating psychedelic funk soundscapes reminiscent of Parliament/Funkadelic.
The drum-and-bass duo often steal the show for Rocket Juice, but Albarn exhibits the same unselfishness that made The Good, The Bad & The Queen so successful. The album has a very loose feel, and Albarn often lets his band members do the work and improvise to their hearts’ content, but on every song, Albarn always comes in with the right keyboard/horn/vocal hook to break the monotony and often adds a new dimension. His keyboards on “Night Watch” becomes the most memorable aspect, and his piano gives the album’s conclusion “Leave-Taking” a stronger pump for the pulse provided by Allen and Flea.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Rocket Juice is Albarn’s vocals. Or rather, his lack of them. Only half of the album’s 18 songs feature vocals of any sort, and of those nine, Albarn only sings lead on one of them. This was perhaps to add to the album’s ethnic flavor. In addition to Baku, Albarn recruited other foreign singers for the album. Most of the times they sing in their native language (Malian musician Cheick Tidiane Seck takes the lead on “Extinguished”), but on other tracks the singers trade both vocal and lingual leads. One of the album’s biggest highlights is “Follow-Fashion,” which features Malian Fatoumata Diawara coolly singing and chanting in her native language and an English rap verse from M.anifest in his Ghanaian accent, with Albarn, Allen and Flea in tow delivering a beat for the ages. Danceable, funky, and drenched with foreign flavor, the song proves to be one of the moments when everything clicks.
The one time Albarn does take sole lead vocal is on the song “Poison,” where the album takes a slower turn but ends up being its best song. “Poison” has all the making of what made the album great, but its slowed-down tempo and Albarn’s hauntingly forlorn voice pushes the song into more accessible territory, and ends up ranking with some of his best material since Blur went on indefinite hiatus. When I first heard him sing “The thought that we are wishing for is poison / poison is a part of love,” my heart actually sank a little bit, and the African musical arrangements only pushed the song into mystic territory, hinting that perhaps I’ll never know of the troubles that Albarn is going through similarly to how I’ll never know the troubles his new African counterparts are cooning about.
The added scope that Rocket Juice & The Moon brings to Albarn’s discography makes you wonder how he’ll continue incorporating all these aspects for his future projects. In addition to Gorillaz, a recently-reunited Blur, and a new opera Dr. Dee planned for soundtrack release this year, Albarn already has a second African album planned, a collaboration with R&B DJ Actress, which is supposed to be recorded in Congo. And despite being supremely busy in the last decade, Albarn has still not released a proper solo album under his own name, something he keeps announcing but keeps pushing back. However, Albarn has continued to expand his brand, in addition to adding to his list of superstar collaborators. As Rocket Juice & The Moon has proven, you know it will be a winner.
4 out of 5