Damon Albarn’s musical CV is as stellar as they come: Britpop overlord, globally successful cartoon band, numerous collaborations with African musicians, one-off (to date) albums with all-star ensembles The Good, the Bad & the Queen and Rocket Juice & the Moon and two – count ’em – operas. No wonder it has taken him 25 years to find the time to release his first solo album.
DAMON ALBARN: EVERYDAY ROBOTS
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Everyday Robots wasn’t even Albarn’s idea, but the suggestion of XL Records boss Richard Russell with whom he worked on Bobby Womack’s The Bravest Man In The Universe. Things started to take shape when Albarn began revisiting childhood haunts and wrote Hollow Ponds, inspired by the long hot summer of 1976, an abiding early memory for many of his generation.
However, the album is less nostalgic autobiography and more a personal reflection on the times. Albarn is not so much declaring that modern life is rubbish as taking the space to ponder the lack of space in our crowded lives, the shortage of serenity in a go-faster culture and the illusion of connectivity in the digital age. In short, he’s getting middle-aged.
Yet how beautifully he expresses those misgivings, with philosophical lyrics, delicately tinkling piano, sparse percussion, squeaking strings and plaintive vocals rendering gorgeous understated melodies which tug at your core as only Albarn in melancholy mode can – think Poison by Rocket Juice & the Moon or the Gorillaz’ On Melancholy Hill.
He portrays the loneliness of the long distance commuter on the innately mournful title track, ruminates on our love affair with screens on The Selfish Giant (“it’s hard to be a lover when the TV’s on”) and finds some humanity in technology on the elegant Lonely Press Play, which makes you think and feel along similar lines to the Spike Jonze film Her and Kate Bush’s prescient Deeper Understanding.
The disarming and bittersweet History Of A Cheating Heart is a more conventionally confessional “I love you but...” song, with Albarn’s voice as exposed as his feelings, while seven-minute jazz-inflected centrepiece You & Me references his drug days with a poetic grace. Even the album’s most throwaway number, an upbeat gospel ode to a baby elephant called Mr Tembo, has the capacity to beguile.
Everyday Robots may be too consistently low-key for the Blur massive, but it is an exquisitely pitched solo flight from a self-confessed serial collaborator.