Damon Albarn became “an outsider” when his parents moved him to Essex, he told the Guardian recently. It’s an odd confession from one of the most fluid musicians of this generation, whose career of recent hasn’t so much moved in blips but in uniform oddity. Albarn has travelled from Blur to Africa Express; from theatre producer of odd musicals to music producer of odd songs via Gorillaz; but never has there been a revolution! – like his self-proclaimed childhood one.
I’m essentially calling Damon Albarn a bit dramatic. But hey, whatever works – Everyday Robots is definitely the work of an outsider. Quiet, at times synthetic and often with sonic currents richer and more absorbent than a Christmas pudding on fire, Albarn narrates his way through his musical alphabet with charming belief in his tunes. With XL Recordings’ Richard Russell on the production, ER is a jaunty and progressive – but still, odd – slumber party. The reduced, dystopian beats of ‘You & Me’ and its’ heart-breaking steel drum is what you’d expect of Albarn with time on his hands – glorious, if not unexpected. Head to ‘Photographs (You Are Taking Now)’ for the closest thing you’ll find to a beat and drop formula, but the trio at the top of the record are pretty symbolic of the rest – suave and deft, without being particularly rare.
His self-declared outsider status, whether real or made up, is the ink that secures Albarn’s stamp on a whole bunch of musical pages. This is the album we knew we’d get. Full of classy turns, clever nuances and heartbreaking melody, ER is stylistically akin to Gorillaz and nothing at all new; but all said and done, Albarn’s record is far from broken.
Perceptive and uber-relevant, Everyday Robots doesn’t sound as ‘personal’ as its creator claims – and although it expounds the classic Albarn adage that modern life is rubbish, alienation has never sounded so approachable. The title track is a desolate vision of humans becoming mere mechanical extensions of their smartphones; it plods into a notional future with a slow beat and otherly violin flurries.
As well as carrying over from Albarn’s Gorillaz days an ear for a sweet soul vocal, ‘Hostiles’, and ‘Lonely Press Play’ sustain the LP’s glum vibes of a technologically-wrought dystopia. And then, from nowhere, ‘Mr Tembo’ – a gospel homage to an elephant – interrupts to proffer the sort of music that’ll probably be sung by the children of tomorrow, in their e-nurseries.
All of which is far more listenable than you’d expect. Atop jazz flute and dub bass, ‘The Selfish Giant’ delivers another modern-sounding indictment of, er, modernity: ‘it’s hard to be a lover when the TV’s on and nothing’s in your eyes’. Bat For Lashes’ Natasha Khan is here credited as ‘ghostly echo’. Crucially, nothing is ever full, unified, or real: the superb Brian Eno-guested centrepiece ‘You and Me’ conjoins two half-songs about Albarn’s one-time heroin addiction, before ‘Hollow Ponds’ blankly recounts biographical fragments from Albarn’s pre-Blur years while a solitary trumpet parps with ludicrous sentimentality. You’d tell the poor bastard to cheer up, if this wasn’t his Thom Yorke moment.
Damon Albarn has lots of ideas about music. From Blur, through to Gorillaz, via The Good, The Bad & The Queen and flirtations with myriad other genres, he seems to have built a career from refusing to succumb to expectations or be pigeon holed. This is both the greatest strength and biggest weakness of this record.
Listening to it, I feel like I’m being tested. I feel like these songs have been written as experiments, and they’re trying to trip me up. Sometimes this works, ‘Lonely Press Play’ has a lot of nice flourishes and fits in with the theme of the record, but the way this segues into the painfully twee African inspired ‘Mr Tembo’ is very jarring, particularly given its spoken word middle 8.
You see what he’s trying to do with these tracks. He’s trying to establish himself amongst the great pantheon of British songwriters – to distance himself completely from Britpop and show himself as this intelligent, thoughtful craftsman. But it’s too much, and as a result, there’s very little joy to be had in this record.
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Check out the video for Damon Albarn's video for 'Everyday Robots' below