Published on April 26th, 2014 | by Dave Scaddan0
Damon Albarn – Everyday Robots
Damon Albarn stepped out of Blur’s shadow a long time ago, but Dave Scaddan discovers that ‘Everyday Robots’ may be Albarn’s most personal record yet.
It will sometimes take a long time for a singer/songwriter who has traditionally worked in bands to show us what he or she can do with a solo venture. George Harrison fans had songs doled out to them at a rate of one or two per Beatles album for many years before the sudden outpouring of ‘All Things Must Pass.’ For years, the pop genius of Bjork Gudmundsdottir was just one of several bright bulbs on the fritz in The Sugarcubes before her solo career made that wonderfully unique band into a Wikipedian footnote. Sometimes the full focus of the spotlight gives us a chance to see a performer we know well in a new and enriching light, but more often than not, that light tends to highlight imperfections or intensify idiosyncrasies that were somehow more charming when watered down. Not to knock The Velvet Underground or oversell The Police, but for every Lou Reed there are at least a dozen Stings.
Damon Albarn cannot ‘go solo’ as these various aforementioned artists have, because since the demise of Blur, he’s already done so — or come close — in many different ways and under many different names. Just because ‘Everyday Robots’ is the first album to bear the name his mother gave him, it is not necessarily our first taste of what Albarn sounds like on his own. By piecing together his contributions to Gorillaz and multitudinous other one-off projects, we can hear, even before listening to ‘Everyday Robots,’ that Albarn is an artist with a great ear for hooky beats, a talented balladeer on the piano bench, a sweetly-cool singer, and a playful songwriter who’s mastered the essential pop star skill of making it all feel effortless. All these assets are in play on his new album, which producer and percussionist Richard Russell encouraged him to record after they worked together on Bobby Womack’s ‘The Bravest Man in the Universe.’ Just don’t expect an overtly funky or brit-poppy effect from Albarn. He’s not sowing the seeds of his recent collaborations with African musicians or soul legends. He’s also not resurrecting Blur’s ascent up the flagpole that once flew the banners of Duran Duran, Wham and Oasis. He’s muted. He’s a bit weary. He’s 45 and learning that looking back and looking inward aren’t always necessarily the same thing.
If the songwriting on ‘Everyday Robots’ sounds like anything Albarn has done before, it’s likely the output of The Good, The Bad & The Queen. The first two tracks have plenty of the same dreamy malaise that group often produced. But instead of being backed by onetime members of The Verve and The Clash and Fela Kuti’s former drummer, Albarn is supported on this album’s title track by a bed of prettily Pro Tooled chirps and clunks that The Postal Service would be proud of. Then, on ‘Hostiles,’ an acoustic guitar and a piano make a fitting pillow for the vocals to perch on. These first two numbers, simple and slinky as they are, also serve as reminders of how Albarn’s voice can really anchor a song. Without doing anything especially outstanding with range or delivery, he can still pack plenty of emotion into his vocals, much like the bevy of soulful balladeers he so admires and supports.
From here, the record takes a well-timed upward turn, first with the still-muted-but-popping-more ‘Lonely Press Play’, then the absolutely Raffi-rocious ‘Mr Tembo’, where Albarn just randomly throws in a choir-backed tune about an elephant so the album can swerve down Sesame Street for a few minutes. The effect is a bit like the shift from ‘Here There and Everywhere’ to ‘Yellow Submarine’ near the end of the first side of ‘Revolver.’ It’s jarring, to be sure, but after a few moments of whimsy, you feel like a real crank if you don’t play along and joyfully regress.
Next, Albarn dials it back again with a brief instrumental called ‘Parakeet’ and the lamenting ‘The Selfish Giant’ and ‘You & Me’. This is where we can really hear the nostalgic, introspective touches we’d naturally expect from a veteran on his own for the first time. We’ve seen this effect of startlingly bare emotion from artists in similar circumstances before — Neil Young (another artist whose true emergence as a solo artist is hard to pinpoint in time) did as much with songs like ‘Out on the Weekend’ and ‘Needle and the Damage Done’ on ‘Harvest,’ letting his audience into a much more autobiographical songwriting realism than there had ever been in his songs with Buffalo Springfield or CSNY. Or, if you don’t like that analogy, consider Ice Cube — having recently left NWA — recording songs like ‘Dead Homiez’ or ‘Once Upon a Time in the Projects’ as a solo artist, songs that revealed a more personal side that the group mentality would never allow. That’s very much the feeling of ‘Everyday Robots’ as it moves from the end of the first to the start of the second side. Albarn is reflecting on his past (and ended) relationships and drug indulgences with a stark honesty. By the time he sings, “the history of a cheating heart is always . . . more than you know,” on the album’s penultimate track, he’s unleashed a tremendously vast amount of honest introspection on the listener. It’s clear after only a few listens that this history of self has been brewing beneath the surface for a long time, and that ‘Everyday Robots’ is Albarn’s chance to get all this out, to put his name on a record that’s absolutely about him.
One of the only things on this record that doesn’t sound totally self-mined is the track called, ‘Phototgraphs (You Are Taking Now),’ but it’s still a standout on a very good album. Descriptions of a dreamy desert crash in an invisible plane are almost spoken over a simple piano part and thumping bass drum while Timothy Leary (sampled, naturally) tells us to pay strict attention. This track and a few others with their pulsing drums and their deep-REM instrumentation make ‘Everyday Robots’ seem almost like a series of laptop ballads with the occasional piano or guitar accompaniment. If you like his work with Blur, or anything he’s done since, this is a record you should hear, even if it might not fit with your ideas about Albarn as a fun-times pop star.
By the time the somewhat inspirational ‘Heavy Seas of Love’ ends the album, it’s clear that Damon Albarn still has plenty left to offer, and that he won’t be burdened by expectations of what he ought to sound like. It’s not likely that a musician with his CV will keep on this solo, introspective track for long, so ‘Everyday Robots’ will probably have to serve as a one-off just like many of Albarn’s past works. Or perhaps this record will be the stem of a body of work like George Harrison and Bjork (and Morrissey) once began with their respective torrents of sudden individualism. Either way, good on Damon for hitting a sweet spot in the same spotlight where so many others have failed.