[28 April 2014]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
For a while, Damon Albarn seemed reluctant to release music under his own name. While working on Everyday Robots, he told NME, “I suppose you could call it a solo record, but I don’t like that word. It sounds very lonely—solo.” Whenever Albarn would step outside of his Britpop heavyweight band Blur to make more music, it was always under one guise or another: Gorillaz, Monkey, Mali Music, Rocket Juice & the Moon, and the nameless supergroup that recorded The Good, the Bad & the Queen. Democrazy and Dr. Dee were released under his name, but the former was a collection of scrappy hotel room demos and the latter was the soundtrack to an opera. So whether he likes it or not, Everyday Robots is being referred to as Damon Albarn’s solo debut. The cover art certainly gives the package that lonely feeling that Albarn associates with the word “solo”, but Everyday Robots came about with some help. Co-produced with Richard Russell, featuring Brian Eno, Natasha Khan aka Bat for Lashes and an English gospel choir, Everyday Robots sure as hell isn’t Democrazy. It’s also just as good as anything else Albarn has done, and that’s certainly saying something.
From around the time Blur turned an ear to lo-fi recordings, Albarn’s musical interests have branched away considerably. So it’s only fair if some of you are asking “does Everyday Robots sound like hip-hop (Gorillaz), afrobeat (Rocket Juice & the Moon), sinister instrumental music (Ravenous soundtrack) or Blur or what?” For the sake of discussion, Everyday Robots is just as song-driven as The Good, the Bad & the Queen, but comes with little sonic Easter eggs not unlike a Danger Mouse production job. It also carries all of the maturity and subtlety of Think Tank‘s somber moments, the last full-length from Blur. Everyday Robots is an album for the quiet times, a soundtrack for your reflections—or as Albarn himself put it, “empty club music”. Before we step into that empty club, let’s address the one song that doesn’t sound like it belongs on the album.
“Mr. Tembo” was written for different purposes. Albarn met the keepers of an orphaned baby elephant. The animal made a sweet impression on Albarn and he decided to write “Mr. Tembo” both for the elephant and to amuse his daughter. Since the word “tembo” is Swahili for “elephant”, the gospel sounds of the Leytonstone City Mission Choir get to merge with a peppy Sub-Saharan rhythm section (and I think there’s even a ukulele). “Mr. Tembo’s on his way up the hill / With only this song to tell you how he feels / But to get there he will need a helping hand / It’s where he is now but it wasn’t what he planned” goes the chorus. So simple, so child-like, so happy-sounding but not entirely optimistic—this is Everyday Robots‘s sore thumb. If the overall album is too drab for you, you will welcome “Mr. Tembo”. If you’re too invested in the album’s solemn atmosphere, it could annoy you. As for me, I think inconsistency tends to be underrated.
The rest of the album feels deeply personal to Albarn, making it difficult to dissect on a critical level. The album’s namesake wallows in soft mechanical heave-hos to tell us that modern life is, if not rubbish, at least detached and impersonal. “We’re everyday robots on our phones,” Albarn sings with neither endorsement nor regret. This song, like many on the album, rest on a bed of humming samples and keyboard motifs that are both stark and striking. Hanging above it all is Albarn’s subtle gifts for melody and vocal phrasing, key ingredients to enjoying Everyday Robots. At a distance, the less patient listener probably won’t distinguish the differences between “The Selfish Giant”, “You and Me”, and “Hostiles”. But once you zoom in—either through your earbuds at night or in your car at a high volume—each of these songs become a small crowning achievement for the songwriter. You might not even mind their repeated choruses (something that apparently bothered ex-girlfriend Justine Frischmann) since they are 100% more likely to lure you into a trance than anything on The Great Escape. The harrowing imagery of “Photographs (You Are Taking Now)”, the self-reflection of “Hollow Ponds”, the lonely, cascading “The Selfish Giant” and the wistfully poppy “Lonely Press Play” pack so much living into a few lines of lyrics that you’ll swear that David Bowie was glancing over his shoulder the whole time.
Close. Bowie colleague Brian Eno lends a hand to two tracks. The final number, “Heavy Seas of Love” rings differently if only because Eno’s double-tracked baritone voice is the first thing you hear. It’s also curiously hopeful for a guy who had no distance left to run in 1999: “When the world is too tall / You can jump you won’t fall / You’re in safe hands.” “You and Me”, the other Eno collaboration, is seven minutes long, meandering and rudderless but still captivating. Say what you will, but I think it takes talent to take a seven-minute song with no center and hypnotize the listener.
Given Damon Albarn’s all-over-the-map approach to music over the last 15 years or so, Everyday Robots had the potential to be a confusing mess. But when he’s not scoring a musical or utilizing the talents of supergroup members, Albarn knows how to compartmentalize his numerous strengths and quietly make a marvel. Everyday Robots may not win you over on your first listen. It’s a “grower” if there ever was one. And when it finally blooms in your ears, you’ll find yourself thinking “ah, so this is why I’ve been following this guy for all these years.”