Damon Albarn doesn’t like to be the centre of attention. Formerly the self-proclaimed voice of a generation, he’s spent the latter part of his career trying to avoid the spotlight. You can’t really blame him for that. The intense scrutiny that accompanied Britpop fell mostly on his head, and by the time he realised that the fame he’d been craving was destroying him it was too late – the damage was done.
So he decided to withdraw as much as possible from the public eye, save for the occasional tetchy interview, and let his songs do the talking instead. Unfortunately for him, though fortunately for the rest of us, his songs have been so consistently good that’s he’s never been able to escape. He sought refuge with the cartoon-fronted Gorillaz, but then they sold millions of records and the merry-go-round started all over again. Supergroups, operas, travels around the world, his persistent protest was that none of this was about him – it’s all about the music, dummy.
No wonder, then, that his first proper solo album has taken 24 years to arrive. You can tell from the cover art how Damon really feels about the whole thing – sitting on a stool, looking down (although not shoegazing), with the album title above, along with his name in his childlike handwriting.
Everyday Robots‘ genesis lies in a visit to his childhood haunts in Leytonstone. From that trip he was able to construct a journey from his formative years to the present day. The title track, which everybody should know by now, opens proceedings, and it’s a delight. Electronic beats, piano and a charming violin sample loop lay the foundations for Damon to observe how we’ve become slaves to technology. Apparently inspired by his being stuck in a gigantic traffic jam in LA, where he noticed everybody in their cars glued to their smartphones and other technological marvels, it’s a glorious lament. It’s probably difficult to do much else when stuck in a big queue, but the point that we’re not open to the world is a good one. In Damon’s own words it’s about the “deconstruction of our senses”, an “alienation from self”.
You & Me is two songs in one, and shows Damon to be as inventive and otherworldly as any British male solo artist you’d care to mention from the last fifty years. It’s also the song with the “controversial” heroin reference, but if you can’t document your life experiences then what can you do? I suppose it didn’t help that Damon stated in interview that it was “initially very enjoyable” but, like Peep Show‘s Super Hans stating that “crack is really moreish”, he’s just telling it like it is. The song contains one of Damon’s most breathtaking vocal performances to date, especially when he sings “You can blame me, blame me, blame me, blame me / when the twilight comes it all goes ’round again / the distance between us is the glamour’s cost”. I’ve always been Team Graham Coxon but, well, what a heart-breaker. It’s a very soulful performance, as emotional and powerful as anything on Blur’s 13. The steel drum break down in the middle (joining the two songs together) is inspired.
Hollow Ponds uses the idea of water as a mirror, allowing Damon to reflect on the significant moments in his life and career, such as floating boats on a pond as a child, the heatwave of 1976, spotting the graffiti that gave its name to Blur’s second album (“Modern Life was sprayed on a wall in 1993”). Photographs (You Are Taking Now) features the tale of Damon travelling to Devon to witness an eclipse and discovering that, after struggling through congestion to see such a rare thing, the real event was a seething mass of iPhones held aloft and taking photos of nothing, rather than people being souls and just enjoying the majesty that the universe can offer us.
Hostiles deals with how we view our apparent enemies as soulless and characterless, save for the fact that they’re hostiles. By dehumanising them it forces a negative response. Lonely Press Play might be about porn, it might be about arrhythmia. What is certain is that it deals with uncertainty, with abstractions, the symbols that dictate our relationship with the world. Closer Heavy Seas of Love features a surprising vocal from Brian Eno. “No-one asks Brian to sing,” Damon said in an interview! It sounds a bit like Daydream Believer at the start, but that’s not a bad thing. It allows the record to end with a glimmer of hope, which everybody needs.
The instrumentals – Parakeet and Seven High – weigh in at 43 and 60 seconds respectively. If you’re in an ungenerous mood you could ask why, if Damon initially had 70 or so fragments of songs to choose from, these two made the cut, but they’re sound poems, evoking the sights that greeted him. The former is a joy, an appreciation of the chirping invaders that have made London their home, while the latter – ostensibly inspired by tower blocks – is very reminiscent of the oddly dark music I used to hear on children’s TV shows when I was bunking off school (at least it didn’t remind me of The Sullivans – another truancy “fave”). It would have been nice to have a couple of songs instead, but never mind.
The album’s most upbeat moment almost didn’t make it on. When Damon first met with co-producer Richard Russell this was one of those song fragments that he was least keen to work on. He dismissed it as just a children’s song, but thankfully Richard recognised its charm and insisted they work on it.
And so Mr Tembo was born. A feel-good hit of the summer affair, it stands apart from the rest of the record. It concerns the titular Mr Tembo, an orphaned baby elephant Damon met while visiting friends in Tanzania. It’s pure joy, a gospel tune with backing from the Leytonstone City Mission Choir. It also made Mr Tembo shit himself when Damon first played the song to him on his ukulele, although it doesn’t have that effect here, I promise.
Perversely, some people are very anti-Mr Tembo. They seem to think it lacks authenticity – that somehow a rich middle class Englishman writing a song about an orphaned Tanzanian elephant just isn’t right. Never mind the fact that it’s a true story. Never mind the fact that it’s the one song on the album that fully links Damon’s past to his present. And never mind the fact that’s it’s a glorious, happy song. Some people take his privileged upbringing (and the fact he can undoubtedly be a complete arse at times) as an excuse to pillory him at every opportunity. Perhaps they perceive him to be a dilettante for trying so many different things. I’d say we should see him as a man who could easily rest on his laurels but instead remains curious about the world and wants to know what it all means. Yes he’s a contradiction but only because he refuses to stand still. The naysayers are always playing catch up.
The overall message may be simple, but it resonates: in our age of technology dependence we are becoming more and more like robots, like slaves. Damon isn’t afraid to look back in order to look forward. As another review puts it, “Albarn laments but never wallows”. Feeling sorry for yourself is easy. Taking a long hard look at yourself, and putting those observations out there, is a lot harder.
Everyday Robots is a great record that gets better with every listen. It sounds unlike anything Damon has done before, and perhaps that’s the biggest surprise here – that after so many years in the game he can keep on surprising us. It’s not a masterpiece, but then I doubt Mr Albarn would ever claim to have made one. It’s not high-octane thrills and spills. It’s contemplative, mature. It’s very low key, understated, introspective. It’s easy to feel that Everyday Robots might have benefited from more upbeat numbers, but that’s not its purpose. This isn’t Blur. This isn’t Gorillaz. This is Damon Albarn, soul laid bare. It’s a personal exploration, and it’s wonderful.
28 April 2014.
Parlophone, Warner Bros, XL.
Everyday Robots, Mr Tembo (video below), You & Me.