For Damon Albarn, one feels, Gorillaz is a means of investigating whatever takes his fancy without having to answer any awkward questions along the way. Fair enough, because as frontman of Blur he surely fielded a lifetime's share. There are only so many times you can give your opinion on a rival group of gobby Mancunians, the ailing relationship with your Britpop girlfriend or the ethics of a middle-class Essex boy appropriating working-class lad culture before wanting to fade from view altogether.
Such questions seem rather irrelevant, however, when put to a band of anarchic cartoon characters. Gorillaz, Albarn's creative partnership with the Tank Girl artist Jamie Hewlett, might have seemed a little childish at first. Time, though, has suggested that Albarn views working behind such a guise as a tactic: to obliterate his identity and open up a world of ideas in the process. Play what you want, say what you want - any unwanted questions can be fired out of a Technicolour cannon, or dispatched with a thousand tons of Acme-brand TNT.
The Fall is an example of such liberation. Originally available last year to members of the Gorillaz fan club, this record couldn't be more of a departure from its predecessor, the guest-packed Plastic Beach, if it tried. Recorded on an iPad during a 32-day stint touring North America, it's a sort of sonic travelogue, exchanging Plastic Beach's globe-trotting spirit and widescreen production values for an austere, stripped-down electronica. Guests are kept to a minimum - Mick Jones and Paul Simonon, both formerly of The Clash, also Albarn's partners in The Good, The Bad and The Queen, add guitar and bass to Hillbilly Man and Aspen Forest respectively; Bobby Womack, who featured on Plastic Beach's Stylo, returns to front Bobby in Phoenix, a glittering cut of synth-powered Delta blues. The mood is solitary, reflecting the manner of its creation. Rough-cut electronica jams mix into fragments of conversation and snippets of US drive-time radio, while serene ambient passages evoke the limbo of international travel. "Friday, Chicago," intones Albarn at the opening of Shytown, as if making an audio diary at 3am, waiting for the jet lag to lift.
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It is not an especially polished affair, and in places - the somewhat messy techno-splatter in The Joplin Spider, for instance - it feels like Albarn is more tinkering with equipment than trying to write quality material. Still, more often than not this lack of polish works in The Fall's favour. The likes of Phoner To Arizona and Snake In Dallas more resemble Gorillaz's self-titled 2001 debut than their glossier recent work, lo-tech lopes built from vocoder and drum machine, squeaky funk keyboard and buzzing Korg Monotron. The paucity of guests and a relative shortage of conceptual messing around, meanwhile, means that Albarn's vocal is pushed to the fore, and it remains an understated delight - melancholy and soulful, perfectly suited to wearied dispatches from halfway round the globe. Low-key it may be - and lo-tech, too, at least by mainstream recording standards - but The Fall is tremendously ambitious in its own way, and that it works as well as it does is a small wonder in itself.