It would be hyperbolic to describe The Fall as Damon Albarn's Kid A moment. Albarn's work tends to inspire grudging respect rather than rapt, quasi-religious devotion. Gorillaz, for all their commercial success, lack the critical and cultural cachet Radiohead wielded at their
peak, and nobody's treating The Fall as a capital-I Important album. Besides, for all its merits - and it has many merits - it just isn't as good as Thom Yorke and co's icy masterpiece. And yet. And yet, there are similarities. Great big, unsubtle similarities.
This is a record composed by a former Britpop star which, very deliberately and with a sense of perverse satisfaction, turns its back on big choruses and stadium-filling moments in favour of drifting, largely instrumental electronic pieces.
Pieces which make relatively few concessions to the casual listeners. Pieces which initally sound slight and underdeveloped, but gradually reveal myriad hidden charms. Pieces which somehow, despite embracing different styles and pulling in different directions, seem part of an unified, coherent album. The Fall might not be a capital-I Important album, but it certainly is a capital-A Album, forty-three minutes of music which are best listened to from start to finish in one sitting, rather than a collection of disparate songs. In the years since Kid A, that's become increasingly unusual.
There's one further similarity: just as critics initially reacted to Kid A with a mixture of bemusement and outright hostility (an infamous review in Melody Maker declared it 'the sound of Thom Yorke ramming his head firmly up his own arse, hearing the rumblings of his intestinal wind and deciding to share it with the world.'), so The Fall has been met, in many quarters, with a polite but disinterested shrug of the shoulders. It's a reaction which is plain wrong - this is, arguably, the finest album Albarn has been involved in - but also, to an extent, understandable, because the listener expects certain things from a Gorillaz album, and The Fall provides none of those things. There are no glitzy, gaudy pop songs, nor even obvious potential singles. With the exception of the superb 'Revolving Doors', which glides along, powered by understated ukelele and a gloriously weary Albarn vocal, there are no instantly memorable tracks. There are relatively few special guest stars. It's just not a terribly cartoonish album. As a result, it will disappoint anyone who wants their Gorillaz albums big and bright and easily accessible; oddly, it's a record which will appeal most strongly to the people least likely to listen to it, those who were underwhelmed by the group's previous work.
Despite brief, unobtrusive cameos by Mick Jones, Paul Simonon and Bobby Womack, The Fall feels like a solo album; this isn't surprising, given that Albarn created it almost singlehandedly on an iPad whilst touring America. It has all the strengths one would associate with a good solo record. It showcases a personal and distinctive artistic vision: many of the best moments collide left-of-centre beats and blooping synths with deliberately mundane samples from television and radio stations and downbeat vocals, creating a dissaffected, alienated travelogue, the sound of one man struggling to stay positive whilst being whisked through a succession of soulless airport lounges and hotels. Despite its reliance of harsh electronic sounds, it has an intimacy, and never sounds wholly inhuman. In large part this is due to Albarn's vocal turns. Gorillaz have utilised a cavalcade of guest vocalists over the years, from Shaun Ryder to Snoop Dogg, but the singer best suited to their music remains Albarn himself. His voice is capable of conveying a tremendous sense of ennui and detachment, and this has consistently provided a fascinating counterpoint to their more boisterous tunes. Here, he excels himself, losing himself fascinatingly in the swirling synths of 'Little Plastic Bags' and unsettling the thumping beats during 'Hilbilly Man'.
The absence of big hits and big names may sound like a weakness, but throughout The Fall Albarn turns it into a strength. This isn't an especially immediate album, or an album which has more than a tangential relationship to the pop and hip-hop sounds Gorillaz have previously flirted with; it is, in many ways, the sound of one man waving two fingers at those who expect certain things from him. For that reason, and for many more, you need to hear it.