I feel a bit unfair writing this review. Not because its scathing - on the contrary, as with most Damon Albarn releases there is plenty of interesting material here. No, its because I'm reviewing this on the same terms I would for any other record - on the music. This seems a little unfair when our favourite virtual pop group have released this material for free (on Christmas day no less) and clearly, to some extent at least, its a collection of ideas and doodles as much as it is a complete body of work.
Having said that, it doesn't lack a defining concept. While Plastic Beach told tales of environmental devistation, The Fall is built around an American road trip with titles as evocative as Phoner to Arizona, The Snake in Dallas and Bobby in Phoenix. I suspect many of these vinegettes were written in motel bedrooms of the towns they are about. Rumour has it that Albarn recorded the whole thing on an Ipad which might explain the lack of variety in backing rhythms - almost all on drum machine.
Most tracks are short and start with electro beats over the aforementioned drum machine and electro basslines (think Stylo) with Albarn singing (droning? I've never been a huge fan of his voice) over the top. The material suffers from a lack of variety in the vocal, particularly as one is used to a great range of vocal performances in a typical Gorillaz release. What this does is actually make the listener almost appreciate Gorillaz even more. You realise that over the years Albarn and Hewitt have coaxed excellent performances from everyone from Mark E Smith to Bobby Womack and that each album they have released is a coming together of some of the greatest musical talent on planet earth. Without this input this release feels a little empty and one-dimensional.
The tracks that work best are those with a hint of real instrumentation. The accoustic guitar at the beginning of Hillbilly man is quite lovely as is the use of piano in Aspen Forest - these tracks seem to have more of a heart which is lacking elsewhere. Ultimately though even these tracks revert to type with drum machine and squelchy electro bass brought back into the mix.
Albarn is clearly still listening to current sounds. The Joplin Spider has an ear-catching bass and shuddering off-kilter beats which bring to mind Flying Lotus while The Snake in Dallas has the sort of cut up R&B groove which has been used to such devistating effect by the XX and James Blake amongst others in recent months.
The subject matter is varied - a sort of state of America today sermon. The Parish of Space Dust has a slightly evangelical feel and roots us in the churches of Texas via Witicha Lineman while Little Plastic Bags might act as a metaphor for the world's only superpower itself 'they don't know where they are going.'
Detroit, as one might expect, is essentially a techno number bringing to mind the abandoned districts of America's once great car-making capital, like a number of other tracks it brings to mind Kraftwerk (that most European of acts on a concept album about America?). The track is only two minutes long though - too short to really draw you in and this leads one to wonder why Albarn has decided to release this material now. There is the making here of a very good album but the ideas clearly need refining and expanding and there is a need for more vocal input - even if only backing singers. The Fall is ultimately a frustrating release and is unlikely to be a record i'll listen to very much. A shame because one can't doubt Albarn's musical talent or his ability to capture the current zeitgiest.