Music

Damon Albarn and Hot Chip: Machines, Love, and Music

Max Harris
Still from "Everday Robots" video

It's not just journalists, politicians, and academics that are responding to the changing nature of work. Artists, too, are engaged in this enterprise.

Two recent records by seasoned British artists traverse the interconnected themes of technology, loneliness, and love.

Several new political tracts have addressed how technology is changing work and the workplace. Paul Mason says in Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future that automation, amongst other forces, will usher in a new economic era that goes beyond existing capitalism. Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams argue in Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work that governments should introduce a Universal Basic Income to support individuals whose jobs are being replaced by emerging technology.

There has also been a spike in writing about how machines, technology, and the Internet are changing social relationships. Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone describes how 20th century artists like Andy Warhol and David Wojnarowicz relied on machines as a crutch for their loneliness. George Monbiot claims that we are entering an “age of loneliness”.

Damon Albarn’s Everyday Robots (2014) and Hot Chip’s Why Make Sense? (2015) explore these prevailing patterns with the power, suggestiveness, and emotional depth that is uniquely possible in music.

Both albums highlight how pervasive technology is, and how it affects us. “We are everyday robots on our phones,” intones Albarn on the titular track of his debut solo album. The first song on Hot Chip’s Why Make Sense?, meanwhile, has Hot Chip vocalist Alexis Taylor telling us: “When I see the beams of those Huarache lights / I know everything will be alright.” Taylor has since said that the “Huarache lights” of the track are shorthand for not just the Nike sneaker line, but also “something modern, something very London” (Songfacts). The music video shows a gigantic, flashing, multi-coloured light installation, captured in a single take. Later in the same song, a robot voice croaks, “Replace us with the things / That do the job better”, and Taylor sings, “Machines are great but / Best when they come to life.”

Loneliness is a product of this dependence on technology, or at least it's never far away from our use of technology, according to these albums. We look like “standing stones / Out there on our own,” sings Albarn of our phone use, again on the title track. On Albarn’s third track, the theme re-emerges: “If you’re lonely, press play,” Albarn croons. In Hot Chip’s ‘Huarache Lights’, we hear that “There’s nothing to touch and / Nothing to hold.”

Elsewhere on the album, perhaps more indirectly, Taylor confesses he “never dreamed” he “would belong” in a “world that’s just gone wrong” (‘Need You Now’). In other tracks, Taylor speaks of the emotional numbness of a technology-dependent time: “I’m feeling so good / Just can’t explain’, he sings in ‘Started Right’, while in ‘Cry for You’, he says “Never been so out of mind”.

The albums – though different in their musical influences and rhythms – also share the view that love may be the antidote to this epidemic of loneliness. Albarn follows the moody, mournful ‘Hollow Ponds’ and ‘Photographs (You Are Taking Now)’ with the upbeat ‘Heavy Seas of Love’. For Hot Chip, the song ‘Love is the Future’ (which articulates the joy that arrives “when I’m with you”) comes right after ‘Huarache Lights’. “The world around refuses” to make sense, Taylor laments in the album closer -- but the suggestion of the album is that love may be the closest thing we find to solace in the midst of this confusion.

The musical choices made by Albarn and Hot Chip in Everyday Robots and Why Make Sense? strengthen and deepen messages about machines, loneliness, and love. The discordant robot voice in ‘Huarache Lights’ suggests that the rise of technology brings something off-base -- maybe even menacing. Jaunty piano on Albarn’s ‘Lonely Press Play’ and ‘The Selfish Giant’ hints at a world grasping for coherence and resonance in the face of change. Albarn and Taylor’s pleading yet soothing voices fill their respective albums with simultaneous sadness and energy.

Albarn and Hot Chip are by no means the only musicians to have explored these themes. Daft Punk (clearly an influence on the track ‘Huarache Lights’, if not Hot Chip’s whole album) offer in their pulsating 2005 track, ‘Technologic’, a picture of how technology has taken over lifestyle and language: “Write it, cut it, paste it, save it / Load it, check it, quick -- rewrite it”. And Kraftwerk’s iconic 1978 album The Man Machine is of course a powerful early evocation of the convergence of humans and robots, with songs like ‘Neon Lights’ representing an obvious inspiration for Albarn and Hot Chip. Albarn has returned to loneliness in Blur’s 2015 album, The Magic Whip, through songs like ‘Lonesome Street’ and ‘Go Out’ (the latter containing the line, ‘I’m getting sad at home / Dancing with myself’).

Moreover, these albums offer only one perspective on these themes: the perspective of contemporary white British males, albeit males that -- especially in the case of Albarn -- have attempted to incorporate other musical traditions. Nevertheless these albums underscore the pervasiveness of the contemporary preoccupation with technology, work, and loneliness.

As well, and more importantly, Everyday Robots and Why Make Sense? showcase the way that music can add texture and emotional depth to our understanding of these social and economic issues. It's not just journalists, politicians, and academics that are responding to the changing nature of work. Artists, too, are engaged in this enterprise. As Damon Albarn and Hot Chip demonstrate through Everyday Robots and Why Make Sense?, sometimes artists’ work can strengthen links half-formed in our mind, such as the links between technology and emotional numbness, or the links between loneliness and love.

Albarn and Hot Chip remind us that we are all grappling with a “world that’s just gone wrong”, a world where they’ll “replace us with the things / That do the job better”, a world that needs “heavy seas of love”. So: if you’re lonely, press play.

Max Harris is writer and academic based in Oxford, UK. He's written previously on politics in music (for example, here) and on new ideas for the future of the Left (see, for example, this article on a politics of love).


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.

Books

Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.

Music

PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.

Film

'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.

Music

Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.

Film

Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.

Music

Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.

Music

The Flaming Lips Reimagine Tom Petty's Life in Oklahoma on 'American Head'

The Flaming Lips' American Head is a trip, a journey to the past that one doesn't want to return to but never wants to forget.

Music

Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.

Music

Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.

Music

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" Is an Ode for Unity in Troubling Times (premiere)

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" is a gentle, prayerful tune that depicts the heart of their upcoming album, Crucible.

Music

'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.

Music

Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.

Television

Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.

Film

Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.

Music

The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.