“Hard for a good soul to survive:” The legacy of Gorillaz’ Demon Days

The world would be forgiven for not knowing quite what to make of Gorillaz when they were first introduced to the music world in 2001. The collaboration between Blur front man Damon Albarn and Tank Girl artist Jamie Hewlett was an immensely weird and entirely new creation, one where visuals and music melded together in kaleidoscopic brilliance. Hewlett’s iconic music videos featured the exploits of the fictional band at the group’s center: 2D, the band’s zombie-like singer; Murdoc Niccals, the group’s moody bass player; Russell Hobbs, playing drums and frequently carrying around a dead pig; and Noodle (guitar, keyboard, background vocals), an unpredictable young Asian girl.

Gorillaz self-titled debut was a hit, introducing catchy tunes like “Clint Eastwood” and “5/4” to the world. That album featured what would become group staples: repetitive, trance-like beats, nonsensical lyrics, an emphasis on guest artist collaborations and a surprising variety of sounds and styles. And yet, the album feels ultimately inessential, a decided product of its time.

The same can’t be said for Gorillaz highly-anticipated follow-up, 2005’s Demon Days. Ten years later, it’s hard not to look upon this dark, moody masterpiece as anything other than a modern classic. When I first heard Demon Days (specifically, the popular track “Feel Good Inc.,” I instantly fell in love with the band, and the album remains one of my all-time favorites. Delve into the album with me to find out why.

Referencing the Beatles is a bold move for any music artist. Thankfully, the greatness of Demon Days justifies such a decision.

Referencing the Beatles is a bold move for any music artist. Thankfully, the greatness of Demon Days justifies such a decision.

The intro to the album sets the tone; it’s filled with low, subtle bass sounds. The sonic blend casts a hypnotic spell, and then fades away with the epic refrain: “You are now entering the harmonic realm.” The opening beats of “Last Living Souls” take over, as Albarn’s hypnotic voice asks: “Are we the last living souls?” The question sets up the theme of isolation on the album. It’s hard to know if the speaker’s isolation is self-imposed or a result of cultural influences. There’s also the possibility of a post-apocalyptic interpretation (literally, everyone else could be dead). The album seems to tease this possibility throughout, but Albarn respects his audience enough to avoid spoon-feeding us any one interpretation of his cryptic lyrics. Whatever the interpretation, the song establishes Albarn’s panache for taking a grab-bag of instruments and styles and allowing them to gel beautifully. This track alone features keyboard, piano, acoustic guitar and violin accompaniment.

The album slides further into chaos with “Kids With Guns,” which bemoans our culture’s blasé attitude towards violence. But the lyrics take things a step further by analyzing the motivations behind the kids with guns who are “taking over.” “And they’re turning us into monsters/Turning us into fire/Turning us into monsters/It’s all desire, it’s all desire, it’s all desire.” In an anything goes, do-what-you-want culture, one that idolizes the individual and seems to make promises it can never keep, we end up with a generation of “mesmerized skeletons,” walking corpses, if you will. “It won’t be long” before they explode. Such a message is even more relevant today than it was when the album released.

“O Green World” bemoans a different kind of violence, that which humanity is doing to the environment. The haunting background chants express a longing for a world that no longer exists. When I hear this song, I picture some kind of post-apocalyptic wasteland. Albarn expresses a desire to return to living a life of oneness with nature. “Oh green world/Don’t desert me now/Made of you and you of me/But, where are we?” It’s one of the album’s most creative and relevant tracks, as Albarn’s initially subdued vocals rise to a cacophonous cry along with the music, which starts and ends the song with utter sonic chaos.

“Dirty Harry” is probably the album’s coolest song, and one of my personal favorites. Continuing hints at a post-apocalyptic wasteland, the lyrics continue the album’s focus on cycles of violence. “I need a gun to keep myself from harm/The poor people are burning in the sun.” Gorillaz’ penchant for collaboration is featured here, with the San Fernando Valley Youth Chorus providing excellent background vocals and Bootie Brown busting out a wicked rap interlude.

There may not be much to say about “Feel Good Inc.” Everyone has heard it; it was the song that sparked my initial interest in the group. I can say that the music video is awesome, and the lyrics make no sense. My guess would be that the flying windmill featured in the video and referenced on the track is the band’s attempt to flee the chaotic violence of the world below, a sort of Noah’s Ark, perhaps. This is all wild interpretation, because the song gives few clues. “Windmill, windmill for the land/Is everybody in?” suggests a desire to fly away and leave everything behind. The creative, iconic rap by De La Soul helps the track maintain its more upbeat vibe. Oh, and did I mention that Jamie Hewlitt is an amazing artist? Seriously, check the video out. It’s good stuff.

The melancholy quickly returns with “El Mañana,” a haunting track that sees the destruction of the windmill of hope from the previous song. Safe to say, the song is a bit of a bummer, but it once again highlights the album’s staggering variety from song to song. I particularly appreciate the gorgeous string accompaniment here.

“Every Planet We Reach is Dead” delves into some much-needed funk, but the lyrics continue their strain of longing. “But God only knows it’s getting hard/To see the sun coming through/I love you…but what are we going to do?” The song is something of a masterwork, with a creative use of guitar, excellent strings and Ike Turner’s kick-ass, bluesy piano solo. It’s certainly an album highlight.

“November Has Come” is a more restrained but equally fun track. It opens with my favorite rap on the album, a subdued, sublimely rhymed poem from MF Doom. But Albarn still makes room for his melancholic questions. “Something has started today/Where did it go? Why you wanted it to be?/ Well, you know November has come when it’s gone away.”

The album’s sense of isolation reaches its apex with the aptly titled “All Alone.” The heavily electronic track is highlighted by a gorgeous, fanciful refrain from guest artist Martina Topley-Bird. “’Cause I don’t believe, when the morning comes/It doesn’t seem to say an awful lot to me.” I love the use of multiple voices to echo the repeated lyric “All Alone!” The staggered vocal effect seems to suggest the sense of isolation that can exist even in a crowd.

That aching feeling attempts to be filled with alcohol in “White Light,” which only contains the lyrics “white light” and “alcohol.” The chaotic, grungy guitar work suggests a descent into inebriated senses to help dull the pain. And, for this track at least, it seems to work; the track is frenetic but I believe purposefully lazy in its attempt to replicate the temporary, fizzy high of inebriation. It’s all style and absolutely no substance, but that seems more like a deliberate thematic choice than a simple case of poor songwriting.

DARE is a straight dance track, and almost prohibitively catchy. It’s tons of fun, with an entertaining vocal from Shaun Ryder. There’s not really much to analyze here, though I do feel like a broken record for reiterating that the music video is beyond amazing and, of course, delightfully weird.

I’ll admit I wasn’t initially much into “Fire Coming out of the Monkey’s Head,” Dennis Hopper’s spoken word feature. But now, it’s probably my favorite track on the album. Hopper tells a complete story, one that highlights the dangers of greed and hubris. It essentially distills all of the album’s major themes into one track: our culture’s obsession with violence (and war in particular), our destruction of the environment and our celebration of the self over all else. Greed is particularly dangerous here, as it results in the destruction of the town where the “Happyfolk” lived. It’s a brilliant and haunting cautionary tale, especially when Albarn’s brief refrain chimes in. “Falling out of aeroplanes and hiding out in holes/Waiting for the sunset to come, people going home/Jump out from behind them and shoot them in the head/Now everybody dancing the dance of the dead.”

In my opinion, Demon Day’s final two tracks catapult the record from simple greatness into masterpiece status. The gospel-infused “Don’t Get Lost in Heaven” seems determined to try and find some peace or at least understanding amidst all the chaos the rest of the album dishes out. The London Community Gospel Choir does an incredible job here, as this brief interlude surveys the destruction the rest of the album has wrought. The cautionary lyrics that echo the song’s title are certainly open to interpretation, but seem to suggest a hope that the listener will not stay lost in high-minded thinking while ignoring the very real suffering in the world. That suffering is referred to as the “Demon Days” on the album’s closing track. “In these demon days it’s so cold inside/So hard for a good soul to survive/You can’t even trust the air you breathe/Because mother earth wants us all to leave/When lies become reality, you numb yourself with drugs and T.V.” But thankfully, the inspirational chorus is not content to leave us in the despair. “Pick yourself up it’s a brand new day!/So turn yourself around/Don’t burn yourself, turn yourself/Turn yourself around/To the sun.”

This hopeful ending refrain is incredibly powerful, especially because I’ve read the lyrics spelled as “sun” and “son.” Given the track’s gospel sound, it wouldn’t necessarily surprise me that the “son” referred to is Christ himself. Such an interpretation would echo a sinner’s redemption as he turns himself around to God and denies his old ways. I think “sun” is the more likely spelling, but perhaps Albarn left us to figure this out for ourselves, like he did on much of the rest of the album.

This is one of the many things that make Demon Days one of my all-time favorite albums. Albarn and his incredible team of collaborators are willing to have a ton of silly fun, but the album is at its best when it sometimes abruptly drops deep, meaningful truths. Many of these are open to interpretation, and that’s the way it should be. The group respects its listeners enough to come up with their own interpretations. Some may be more correct than others, but we may never really know. In the meantime, we’ll have to settle for one of the most sonically diverse, thematically daring, original and downright inspired albums to ever grace the ear. That seems like a pretty good deal to me.

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