There are two definitions of an environmental plastic beach, neither of which are very pleasant. First, we have the near-microscopic bits of nylon and polystyrene washing up on English shores, so tiny and widespread they could be “replacing” traditional grains of sand.

Second, there’s the “Pacific trash vortex,” an indeterminately sized expanse of garbage floating around the North Pacific Ocean. It is the last word on NIMBY (“not in my backyard”) – a social concept allowing environmental disasters to build up out of sight, out of mind. Most people tend to ignore the fact that the Earth is covered in water, so the idea that it’s all there to be dumped into is both expected and disheartening.

While the kitchen-sink approach of Gorillaz would in theory just take this idea and stick it on an album cover, there might be something deeper to the group’s third album. Sole mastermind Damon Albarn welcomes artists as diverse as Lou Reed, Snoop Dogg, and Fall frontman Mark E. Smith, but Plastic Beach is his project’s most cohesive effort to date, a concept album about staring towards the future in a narcotic haze.

This comes to fruition excellently on “Rhinestone Eyes,” the first track on the album featuring Albarn’s vocals. Over a minimal, futurist beat, Albarn tosses out lines about “factories far away” and a “pod washed up in bleach” in a sleepy daze, as if they were floating in and out of his mental orbit. Less willfully obtuse than “Tomorrow Comes Today” from their 2001 debut, it could mean that Gorillaz are getting serious, ready to stay afloat long after their bits of genre ephemera drift away.

This leads to the weaker “Stylo,” the album’s first single. A transparent ‘80s throwback, with guest Mos Def making his contribution via landline, the song doesn’t build nearly enough momentum, and even an energetic appearance from soul legend Bobby Womack can’t lift it off the ground.

Better songs include “Empire Ants” and “To Binge,” both featuring Little Dragon (an entire band - so maybe it’s Little Dragon feat. Damon Albarn?), and “Some Kind of Nature,” one of the smoothest pop songs Lou Reed has participated in since Transformer.

Plastic Beach, unlike predecessor Demon Days (2005), feels absolutely like an album rather than a forced assemblage of disparate ideas, and, as a result, there are few clear highlights a la “Clint Eastwood” or “DARE.” Each track feels beamed in from the same location; that would be a deserted island with a broken radio from 1988. Appropriate, isn’t it?

The question for critics and fans is thus: do we want Gorillaz to focus? It certainly makes it easier to accept the project on an emotional and artistic level, instead of just Albarn’s clearing-house for his pop imagination. Either way, no one expected Gorillaz to make it this far, commercially or creatively, and Plastic Beach is a testament to Albarn’s refusal to get lost at sea.

gorillazplasticbeach.jpg  Artist: Gorillaz
  Album: Plastic Beach (Virgin, 57 minutes)
  Rating: 3.5/5
  Key Tracks: “Rhinestone Eyes”, “Empire Ants”, “Some Kind of Nature”