Monkey - Journey to the West (****)
You’d be forgiven for expecting a new primate-themed record by Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett to be a third Gorillaz album, with Del Tha Funky Homosapien in a cartoon guise rapping over hooky-as-hell beats. Let’s get one thing straight – that’s not what Monkey is, at all. Journey To The West is an Eastern-themed opera score, more Philip Glass than Feel Good Inc. It’s an entirely artistic project from a pop star who, lest we forget, released an album of African music a few years ago, clearly unconcerned about whether he ever fronts a chart battle again. It’s also not intended as a stand-alone piece of music: it’s merely a version of the soundtrack to a piece of musical theatre that has already shown in Manchester, Paris and London. In that respect, it’s pretty much impossible to understand what any of it means without the visual accompaniment – not to mention that all the singing is in Mandarin, and occasionally in the style of a monkey – other than the fact that it’s a suite about a journey.
This isn’t a record to be downloaded in bits, or played through an iPod Shuffle – it’s an album in the old-fashioned sense, with a beginning, middle and end that are all essential to a musical understanding, if not a literal understanding, of each other section. The creative scope and ambition shown by Albarn is astonishing: he not only resists the temptation to throw any Blur or Gorillaz references in as comfort blankets, and never accidentally does so out of habit, but in fact takes risks with difficult monotony in the hope that they pay off later. Sometimes they do, and it’s astounding. Take ninth track Battle In Heaven as an example. The first two minutes are almost painful, with tuneless alarms and violins that scour harshly, but respite is given when dramatic booming horns come in to announce someone’s arrival. Then Albarn makes it tough again: like a Lynchian nightmare, something or someone is painfully wailing, in reverse, in real misery; to ease the pain, Albarn lays a sumptuous string arrangement over the cries and brings the horns back, but she only seems to get worse.
As a final pleading cry rings out, tenth track O Mi To Fu’s electro beats stumble in and wipe the slate clean, before taking us somewhere else entirely. It’s an entirely indecipherable but breathtaking sequence of moves. Monkey doesn’t always get as good as that, but the vision has to be applauded. Can you believe that the lad who once wrote Country House is now adapting 500 year old Chinese folk tales about travelling monkey kings into fully fledged operas? I wonder what Mogwai make of that.