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Damon Albarn - Everyday Robots

Posted on Tuesday, 29 April 2014 | No Comments



Trigger warning: there may be references to the 'B-pop' word.

The headline confession trailing the release of Everyday Robots is buried casually in the second verse of mid-album track You And Me, where amidst a jumble of semi-autobiographic details and allusions, Albarn sings of "Tin foil and a lighter, the ship across". As far as drugs allusions go, it's about as nonchalant and half-hearted as can be: a coy allusion to the actual paraphernalia, a fairly meaningless metaphor for the purpose and affects of heroin, and then on with the rest of the fragments that comprise the lyric. It's one of a few times that the record nods towards Albarn's nineties, but it's the only one that offers and sustenance to the tabloid circus around that decade's music that refuses to go away. Yes, finally we have confirmation that the dark, brown tendrils of the horse found their way to one of the biggest starts of the era, and...well, so what? Whatever Albarn's intentions might have been, it's a line that stands out more as a marketing gimmick than anything else, a tell-all scoop for the Behind The Music crowd, even when most of Albarn's latest - as with all his work up to now - spends its time telling us about everything except the man who made it.

The fascination with who the 'real' Damon Albarn can be placed down to the insatiable genre-hopping he's made his modus operandi ever since he traded in the cheeky chappy persona of Blur's Britpop trilogy - Modern Life Is Rubbish, Parklife and The Great Escape - for ventures into American-influenced rock and world music on Blur's later work, before working with a vast cast of collaborators for the omnivorous Gorillaz, working on two operas (one of which, Dr. Dee, resulted in an album of stark folk under Albarn's own name that has clearly been airbrushed out of the picture so this latest work can be sold as his solo debut proper) and also appearing with a variety of other, shorter-lived bands like The Good, The Bad & The Queen and Rocket Juice & The Moon. Each twist and turn of his career has brought a new persona into existence alongside it, a new Albarn. You could be forgiven for mistaking Damon Albarn as something of a placeholder, a suitably malleable public front for a talent far more secretive and self-conscious than they would ever want to admit. Dramatic image changes are nothing new in British rock - hello The Beatles, David Bowie, Kate Bush, and so on - but all these figures still had an identifiable reality to them running through their works. Even Albarn's more seemingly confessional ballads, often praised as his greatest triumphs, seem held in quote marks: powerful they may be, but songs like This Is A Low, Tender or On Melancholy Hill work on the level of potential revelations fed through the filter of character studies or genre plays, rather than any great reflection on the songwriter himself.

Everyday Robots has to satisfy several expectations then. Most obviously, it has to act as a long-delayed coming out party for Damon Albarn (whoever he might be). But coming from someone who has had such a distinguished career through his gift for collaboration and talent-spotting as much as his own songwriting abilities, it also has to find a way to make a case for itself as a necessary step for Albarn, rather than an admission that he's finally run through all the possible permutations of his bulging phone-book. It's telling that the album, recorded with XL label head and producer Richard Russell, came about after Albarn pushed to work with him again after their work together on Bobby Womack's The Bravest Man in the Universe only for Russell to suggest making it a solo Damon Albarn album, because there's something oddly dutiful about the whole thing. Just look at that cover photo, with Albarn looking suitably pensive in his casual clothes against a backdrop of the most dreary grey. It's meant to be the kind of important, pseudo-deep singer-songwriter pose that's ten a penny, and yet...he just looks like he's in detention at some weirdly minimal secondary school, the shot taken just moments after Albarn looked up to ask, "is this what a solo album cover is supposed to look like?" Naturalism rarely looks quite this stage-managed.




As with Albarn and Russell's work on The Bravest Man in the Universe, this is an austere and clean production that hints towards the wide world of modernity going on out there, but always keeps it slightly at arm's length. It worked superbly for Bobby Womack as it threw the spotlight on that superb voice, just as it should be, but here it often drains the drama that fuels the best of Albarn's ballad work. It's somewhat perverse that on an album that endeavours to focus on what has traditionally been the richest vein of his work, the dull and obvious arrangements and somewhat forced attempt at confessional lyricism (alongside the aforementioned most-coy-drugs-reference-in-rock-history, there's also a reference to Modern Life is Rubbish on Hollow Ponds so clumsy and forced it would make Nicky Wire blush) make this the first time in Albarn's career where a preponderance of slowies makes for an actual weakness.

The obvious point of comparison to his previous work is with The Good, The Bad & The Queen's under-rated album of downcast slice-of-life observations. That album was seen as a disappointment for not being the rock band plenty of Albarn's fans hoped it would be (evidently they didn't enjoy the perverse humour in hiring a drummer as magnificent as Tony Allen just to sit at the back twiddling his thumbs through a set of slowies), but it worked well as a kind of unofficial sequel to Parklife, revisiting the same milieu to find the frantic energy of youth given way to a more pensive dread. It was as fine as exhibition as any for Albarn's observational gifts, which makes it all the more puzzling at how restricted a view Everyday Robots sets itself. The title track is a mediocre, plodding piano melody jolted into life with some judicious samples, but the appallingly mundane, luddite lyric sinks the enterprise entirely. Photographs (You Are Taking Now) and Hollow Ponds are average trips down memory lane lent nothing by their bare-bones arrangements, while the far too long centrepiece You & Me is - if you ignore the heroin line - just the tale of someone boring trying to convince you that they used to be interesting, which just makes it even more tedious. For all the insight he's found into his various creations and characters over the years, there's very little real insight into this latest character, the man standing in throughout these songs for Damon Albarn.

Indeed, the real highlights here are generally when Albarn lifts his head up and Russell agrees to throw something over the skeleton of the songs. Lonely Press Play continues the technological suspicion found in the title track but also boasts a swooning string chorus, while album closer Heavy Seas of Love borrows the vocal chords of Brian Eno and a choir for a spot of beautiful downcast gospel. On the album's finest piece, the domestic disquiet of The Selfish Giant, the generally suburban theme of the record actually works wonders thanks to a return to an observational rather than nostalgic lyrical lens and an arrangement that finds time for some distant saxophone calls and a sense of slow-building suspense that this frequently sluggish record rarely achieves: it's the one song on here that can be said to comfortably sit alongside the pantheon of great Damon Albarn ballads. (This still does not explain the presence on the album of Mr Tembo, a stilted and mis-firing attempt at whimsy that Albarn had not intended to appear on the album but was encouraged to include by Eno: a finer example of first thought as best thought you will rarely find.)

And so, ultimately, it's hard to tell if the Damon Albarn of Everyday Robots is close to the real man or if it's just another character. If it's the former, perhaps we have a reason for all the different disguises and concepts over the years: Albarn's certainly a talented man, but he's not a particularly interesting one. And if it's the latter, then what does that say about how the songwriter sees his audience? The gleeful genre-hopping of Albarn's post-Britpop career has found him labelled a mercenary by some, but it's not an argument this writer has ever bought into: be it down-tempo hip-hop, shiny synth-pop, smooth neo-soul or traditional folk, he's always thrown himself into sounds with the enthusiasm of a genuine fan. Here though, he's locked himself into a limited sonic and emotional palette because, seemingly, that's what solo albums are meant to be. Are we meant to buy the idea that the technology loving, broad-minded and fun performer behind Gorillaz is a dull luddite stuck firmly to Q's idea of what a tasteful middle-aged songwriter should sound like? If so, then this surely is his most contemptuous gesture since the ugly, quasi-ironic fuck-the-proles subtext that ran through The Great Escape like Blackpool rock. Should you want something to take away from Everyday Robots, it's that when a songwriter who produces his most inspired work when he's giving himself new sandboxes to work out of restricts himself to the view from his navel, he's never going to be as inspired as when he opens the window and lets the world in.

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