As cartoons, Gorillaz should never have to worry about limitations. However, the possibilities on the band's "Plastic Beach" (Virgin) - the third collaboration between musical mastermind Damon Albarn, his ever-growing circle of friends, and visual artist Jamie Hewlett - feel distinctly finite.
According to Gorillaz mythology, "Plastic Beach" is an island in the South Pacific made of debris washed up from the rest of society. It's an idea that fits in nicely with the album's twin themes of one man's trash being another man's treasure and the melancholy that comes from realizing how much is actually wasted.
There's little exuberance here. No sly "Feel Good Inc." groove, no playful odes to the cool shoeshine. The closest Gorillaz comes to fun on "Plastic Beach" is the trippy psychedelic hip-pop of "Superfast Jellyfish" with De La Soul and Gruff Rhys, who playfully poke at the marketing of microwavable meals. "Sweepstakes" is upbeat, as Mos Def rides an M.I.A.-ish groove that spins into a dizzying marching band attack with Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, but no matter how many times they shout: "Sweepstakes! You're a winner!" it doesn't feel like anyone wins anything valuable.
Instead, Gorillaz mainly goes for laid back, starting with the electro-funk "Welcome to the World of the Plastic Beach," featuring Snoop Dogg going on about how the world seems hopeless. The single "Stylo" chugs along on a mix of Afrobeat, funk and Bobby Womack's soulful shouts.
With "Plastic Beach," apparently even cartoon Gorillaz get the blues.
GORILLAZ: "Plastic Beach"
THE GRADE: B+
BOTTOM LINE: The cartoon band dance around real-world problems