Over his 25-year career, it’s amazing that Damon Albarn has never released a solo album. Sure, he’s been prolific, with his storied stint leading the Britpop mainstays Blur, as well as his time as 2D, a cartoon alter ego and frontman of visual/music outfit Gorillaz. On top of that, he’s kept busy by being involved in a number of other endeavors, namely the Anglo-centric project The Good, The Bad, & The Queen, one-off stints with noted African musicians, writing operas based on the Chinese five-note pentatonic scale, and producing for revitalized R&B legend Bobby Womack.
A man of many faces, Albarn has damn near been completely consistent. Adeptly stepping in and out of genres, he’s still managed to maintain his standard of witty, insightful, and melancholic songwriting, even when he’s diving far out of his comfort zone. It’s fitting then that for his first solo effort ever, the subtly beautiful Everyday Robots, the restless creative pours out his most personal collection of tracks yet and sounds comfortable doing it.
While Albarn’s music has gotten intimate before, namely on Blur’s 13 (which was born out of the aftermath of Elastica frontwoman Justine Frischmann and Albarn’s relationship) and Gorillaz’s sublime single “On Melancholy Hill”, much of his output has been third-person character studies or descriptive looks at Britain like Blur’s genre-defining “Life” trilogy (Modern Life Is Rubbish, Parklife, and The Great Escape). Here, on Everyday Robots, Albarn searches inward, seeking inspiration by tracing his childhood roots in East Leytonstone, London and Colchester, Essex.
In fact, artifacts from his past appear on the record, like his hometown’s Leytonstone City Mission Choir, along with some revealing autobiographical details, which make Everyday Robots a solo album in every sense of the word. The meditative “Hollow Ponds” describes cinematic snapshots of Albarn’s life, beginning with a heat wave in 1976, a first day of school in 1979, and seeing the “Modern Life Is Rubbish” graffiti in 1993. In a much politicized and publicized couplet, Albarn also sheds light on his previous heroin use on the epic seven-minute “You & Me”, where he sings, “Tin foil and a lighter, the ship across/ Five days on, two days off.” More than he has been on any other record, Albarn is concerned with how his history colors his present and sets his future.
Typically, Albarn keeps himself at a distance while addressing social ills and malaise, but on this record, he also implicates himself. Following a fitting sample of 1950’s English comedian and performer Lord Buckley courtesy of producer Richard Russell, the album-opening title track brings the point home with its first line, “We are everyday robots on our phones/ In the process of getting home.” Backed by exotically intricate string arrangements and subtle electronic blips, Albarn’s voice is free to envelop the compositions, drawing close attention to his lyrical content. The subtle instrumental flourishes throughout Everyday Robots never overpower Albarn, creating enough open space for an entirely reflective, delicate effort.
There’s little ambiguity in Albarn’s exploration of interpersonal relationships in a distant, technology-saturated world. On “Lonely Press Play”, he sings, “When I’m lonely, I press play” after asking, “Can I get any closer?/ What antidote can I bring to you?” A loss of closeness and overbearing disconnection dictate his lyrics. Later on “The Selfish Giant”, which features understated guest vocals from Bat for Lashes’ Natasha Khan, he admits, “It’s hard to be a lover when the TV’s on and nothing’s in your eyes.” But while it’s easy to drown in the gloomy portraits of falling apart, Albarn and guest vocalist Brian Eno offer an outstretched hand on closer “Heavy Seas of Love”. Eno’s confident baritone assures, “When the world is too tall/ You can jump, you won’t fall/ You’re in safe hands.” It’s a life-affirming ending, a fitting answer to a world separated by convenient smartphones, computers, and iPods. When Albarn triumphantly sings, “Heavy seeds of love/ Radiance is in you,” it’s a powerful moment, offering a needed reprieve from his somber observations.
Where the optimism of “Heavy Seas of Love” follows the album’s theme and general narrative, there’s an even starker tonal shift on the album’s fourth track. Jumping away from the album’s reflective atmosphere comes “Mr. Tembo”, a jubilant, ukelele-based number that verges on being classified as children’s music. Based on a fateful meeting with a shitting baby elephant at a nature preserve in Tanzania, the song is innocent, jarringly devoid of Albarn’s sardonic wit. It’s a twee lowlight that mars the seamless sequencing of otherwise exquisitely crafted offerings.
Throughout the album’s extensive promotional campaign, Albarn has been especially candid about its genesis, detailing each song, his process, and his inspiration. Despite his forthright approach, Everyday Robots is still an elusive beast. As personal as it is, Albarn deftly clouds his songs with opacity, inviting the listener to get lost in its spacious, lush portraits. This far into his career, Albarn’s unparalleled versatility continues to reveal new facets of his ever-morphing personality. Albarn’s still very good at writing songs. And with this introspective statement, he’s not showing any sign of growing stale.
Essential Tracks: “Hostiles”, “Everyday Robots”, and “You & Me”