Demon Days is unified and purposeful in a way Albarn's music hasn't been since The Great Escape, possessing a cinematic scope and a narrative flow, as the curtain unveils to the ominous, morose "Last Living Souls" and then twists and winds through valleys, detours, and wrong paths -- some light, some teeming with dread -- before ending up at the haltingly hopeful title track. Along the way, cameos float in and out of the slipstream and Albarn relies on several familiar tricks: the Specials are a touchstone, brooding minor key melodies haunt the album, there are some singalong refrains, while a celebrity recites a lyric (this time, it's Dennis Hopper). Instead of sounding like musical crutches, this sounds like an artist who knows his strengths and uses them as an anchor so he can go off and explore new worlds. Chief among the strengths that Albarn relies upon is his ability to find collaborators who can articulate his ideas clearly and vividly. Danger Mouse, whose Grey Album mash-up of the Beatles and Jay-Z was an underground sensation in 2004, gives this music an elasticity and creeping darkness than infects even such purportedly lighthearted moments as "Feel Good Inc." It's a sense of menace that's reminiscent of prime Happy Mondays, so it shouldn't be a surprise that one of the highlights of Demon Days is Shaun Ryder's cameo on the tight, deceptively catchy "Dare." Over a tightly wound four minutes, "Dare" exploits Ryder's iconic Mancunian thug persona within territory that belongs to the Gorillaz -- its percolating beat not too far removed from "19/2000" -- and that's what makes it a perfect distillation of Demon Days: by letting other musicians take center stage and by sharing credit with Danger Mouse, Damon Albarn has created an allegedly anonymous platform whose genius ultimately and quite clearly belongs to him alone. All the themes and ideas on this album have antecedents in his previous work, but surrounded by new collaborators, he's able to present them in a fresh, exciting way. And he has created a monster album here -- not just in its size, but in its Frankenstein construction. It not only eclipses the first Gorillaz album, which in itself was a terrific record, but stands alongside the best Blur albums, providing a tonal touchstone for this decade the way Parklife did for the '90s. While it won't launch a phenomenon the way that 1994 classic did -- Albarn is too much a veteran artist for that and the music is too dark and weird -- Demon Days is still one hell of a comeback for Damon Albarn, who seemed perilously close to forever disappearing into his own ego.
Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi