Four-Color Fantasies
Gorillaz and Jonathan Coulton Get Graphic

When I was a young boy, I always loved visiting my grandparents. Of course I loved them and enjoyed their company, but there were two reasons in particular I liked going to their house: they always let me have snacks my mother would not, and my grandfather always bought me comic books.

If I owe my lifelong love of sequential art to anyone, it’s to the kindly old man who indulged my longing for the further adventures of Spider-Man, back when comics were a quarter. (I also owe much of my lifelong love of music to his wife, my grandmother, a concert pianist who taught me to play my first songs.) My fascination with four-color universes has never faded – it now encompasses 96-million-color epics and black-and-white tales and everything in between.

Along the way I learned that many people have a strange misconception of comics as an art form, as if one can only use it to tell stories of costumed heroes punching one another. In college I found books like Bone and Cerebus and Strangers in Paradise, and discovered that comics can be anything. (One of the most brilliant professors at my school once borrowed a couple comics from me, and he returned them with a gleam in his eye as he said this: “I just realized you can write anything you want in the word balloons!”)

These days I buy dozens of comics, both in single-issue and book form, and I read voraciously. I expect my love for this medium will never die – I’ll run out of money first. So naturally, I’m drawn to anything that taps into the world of comics, particularly if I can simultaneously indulge my love of music. I feel like I’m getting some kind of two-for-one deal.

So you can imagine how ecstatic I am to be talking about both of this week’s contestants. First up, obviously, is Gorillaz, the best animated band on the planet. (That’s right, Jem and the Holograms. Sorry, Dethklok.) Created by Blur’s Damon Albarn and Tank Girl illustrator Jamie Hewlett, Gorillaz officially includes 2-D, Murdoc Niccals, Russel Hobbs and Noodle, four misfits finding their way through a post-apocalyptic future. Unofficially, of course, none of them exist outside of Hewlett’s imagination.

But the animated band is vital to the Gorillaz experience. For one thing, the band’s album covers and videos are all great, all rendered in Hewlett’s punk-influenced style. But for another, the four-color foursome allows Albarn to basically be invisible. Remarkably, this frees him up to sound like anything he wants, much like writing whatever comes to mind in the word balloons. Gorillaz music is hip-hop, electro-pop, soul and funk, all mixed together in a heady brew that goes by like lightning, and none of it has ever sounded like what you’d expect from the frontman of Blur.

Albarn and his co-conspirators have taken most of this decade off after releasing two records – the stuffed-full Plastic Beach and the more intimate The Fall – in 2010. Their comeback, Humanz, is much more the former than the latter. It spans 26 tracks and is positively loaded with guest stars. It’s also exactly what I want in a Gorillaz album. It breaks genre boundaries like they were nothing, confidently treads anywhere it likes and plays like a mixtape.

Albarn himself is on most of these tracks, but he takes a back seat, ceding the floor to his frankly astonishing roster of guests. Just to hit some of the highlights: “Let Me Out” features Mavis Staples and Pusha T and is one of the most stirring things here, “Momentz” harnesses the renewed power of De La Soul for a surprising strut, “Charger” brings Grace Jones to the forefront (and is a powerhouse), and Vince Staples fires off verses on album opener “Andromeda.” Carly Simon shows up on one song, as does Savages’ Jehnny Beth and splendid singer Anthony Hamilton.

You might think that such a diverse roster leads to a scattershot feeling, and you’d be right. Very little holds this record together as more than a collection of disparate tracks. But those tracks range from good to great, and if you think of this (and every Gorillaz album) as a mix CD created by these four fictional characters, it really works. Part of the thrill is hearing these tracks rub up next to each other. “Submission,” a pulsing winner featuring singer Kelela and a rapid-fire verse by Danny Brown, slinks its way into the dirty sorta-guitars of “Charger,” on which Albarn’s half-asleep vocal style slides into Grace Jones’ powerful one.

There are certainly low lights, as you’d expect from an album with 26 tracks. “Busted and Blue,” performed entirely by Albarn, is the first dip in momentum. It’s also the longest thing here at 4:37, which just shows how quickly this thing flies by. I definitely could have lived without “Sex Murder Party,” and “The Apprentice” feels thrown together. But it’s remarkable how much of Humanz is as good as it is.

Gorillaz is a band of comic book characters, and their albums feel like the soundtrack to their strange and unbelievable lives. It feels like reading comics, like getting pieces of 26 different stories every month, and reading them all back to back. Albarn doesn’t do the best job of setting a scene and telling a story, but this project has freed him in so many important creative ways. Just listen to “Hallelujah Money,” featuring Benjamin Clemente. I mean, what is that? Synthetic drunken future-soul meets noise sculpture? Any project that allows this kind of freedom is aces with me.

* * * * *

While I love Gorillaz’ comic book style and sensibility, no one has better integrated comics with his music so far this year than Jonathan Coulton.

Coulton himself is a comic book story. A self-proclaimed internet superstar, Coulton made his name writing about geeky subjects – monkeys, robots, the Mandelbrot set. He’s a stunningly clever writer, able to find the sadness behind his sci-fi inspiration. Early song “I Crush Everything” was written from the point of view of a self-loathing giant squid, unable to stop himself from destroying the things he loves. “I’m Your Moon” is a valentine from Pluto’s moon Charon, on the occasion of Pluto’s declassification as a planet, and is one of the warmest songs of affirmation I know.

For years, Coulton has been shoving against the idea that he’s a novelty act, writing nerdy songs for nerds. His last album, Artificial Heart, was a clear sign that he was heading elsewhere. There were novelty songs, most notably the awesome “Je Suis Rick Springfield,” but they sat alongside truly heartfelt pieces like “Glasses” and “Today With Your Wife,” songs any writer would be thrilled to pen. Coulton is in the odd position of having to please an audience that loves songs like “Re: Your Brains” while also growing as a songsmith.

He’s found a way to do that, and do it brilliantly, on his fantastic new record Solid State. It is simultaneously the geekiest and most mature thing he’s done. Solid State is a concept album about the internet and its wide-ranging effects, accompanied by a massive graphic novel co-written by Matt Fraction and illustrated by Albert Monteys. The comic tells the album’s story, filling in details – it’s essentially about an internet troll who invents an artificial intelligence that causes a worldwide collapse, then leaves earth, returning many years later to survey the damage.

Yeah, that’s geeky, and it allows Coulton to say a lot of things he’s probably wanted to say for some time about anonymity and technology. But I’m not sure his audience is quite ready for Solid State itself, a record that is remarkably serious in intent and execution. This is a great leap forward for Coulton, a record that can stand proudly alongside the works of his heroes. And those heroes, it is becoming clear, are the likes of Elvis Costello and his new collaborator and label boss, Aimee Mann.

These songs. These songs! Coulton has never delivered as consistent a set of songs as this one. Solid State begins with “Wake Up,” from the point of view of the unnamed artificial intelligence awakening in space, and just by itself it announces the ambition and intent of this record. “The whole world is waiting for you,” Coulton sings over an epic arrangement that leads into “All This Time,” an electro-blip tune set in the future. This song name-checks Kurzweil and depicts a society where people are cogs in a machine, where all they have is all this time. The lovely title track bemoans this use of technology, and then we’re back in the past, looking at the origins of dystopia.

Those origins just happen to be an abrasive character who grows, changes and matures over the next nine songs, becoming a family man just in time for his creation to ruin the world. This section of the album kicks off with “Brave,” one of the very best things Coulton has written. A backhand to anonymous internet trolls set to a superb guitar-rock beat, the song finds Coulton taking on the voice of one, ranting about “sheeple” and declaring “when I torch the place, cover up my face, that will make me brave…”

But as the pressures of the world (and the internet) get to this character, they change him. Only Coulton would write a tender ballad about coping and call it “Pictures of Cats,” and only Coulton could make it this affecting. Only Coulton would write a song about creating a massive artificial intelligence, call it “Robots.txt,” and imagine it as a beautiful song of encouragement. And only Coulton would pen a song from that AI’s point of view as it scours the internet and decides that we’re not worth saving. That song, “Don’t Feed the Trolls,” is the most old-school Coulton thing here, and it’s wonderful. “Lucy had a steamboat, the steamboat had a bell, Lucy went to heaven but she still felt like hell, so she only gave it two stars, worst place ever…”

By the time of “Your Tattoo” and “Ball and Chain,” the main character of Solid State has settled down and is a better person. So naturally, the world falls apart in “Sunshine,” possibly the most impressive and intricate song of Coulton’s career. “Long on Bitcoin and regret without much to show, the roaches took the kitchenette, we just let it go…” The chorus is superb, lamenting the burning world and leaving it behind.

Honestly, even though the record has 17 tracks, I could have used another song or two set in the future civilization. (The graphic novel does yeoman’s work filling in the narrative gaps.) The last four songs are a suite from the AI’s POV as it makes its way back to Earth, longing for humanity, for connection. The two-part “All to Myself” brings a Pink Floyd feel to the proceedings, and the brief “There You Are” depicts the reunion. The last panel of the graphic novel captures the same moment, creator and destroyer, face to face. What happens next, only Coulton knows.

I think this album is going to surprise a lot of people. It surprised me. I’ve been waiting for a quantum leap forward like this from Coulton for a while, but even I’m stunned by how good Solid State is. The songs are all top notch, without a wasted moment. The production is gorgeous. Best of all, you feel like you’ve been somewhere by the end of it. It seems like a ridiculous understatement to say that Coulton has grown as a songwriter and a record maker here. He’s made one of the year’s finest albums, a deep and coherent statement about where we are and where we’re going. This is one to experience.

You can hear Solid State and order both the album and the graphic novel online here.

* * * * *

Wow, ran long this time. Next week, Slowdive and a few others. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at

See you in line Tuesday morning.