The real Damon Albarn stands up with Everyday Robots
Everyday Robots is the first album Damon Albarn has released that has his name on it. After 25 years of bands and monikers, this is apparently what Albarn wants his name attached to, and the implication of this move is one of self-expression and openness. However, the man behind some of the most exciting and fascinating music of the past quarter century remains aloof on his first openly solo venture.
For me, Damon Albarn is better described as an artist than he is a musician. He fearlessly, and desirably, reinvents himself and pushes himself into new territory more so than any other songwriter I can think of. He experiments, always to the left of centre, with sounds and genres that others leave in their respective pigeonholes. Over a career that begins with practically the invention of Britpop, through hip-hop/trip-hop, pop operas and African explorations, Albarn emerges with Everyday Robots, an album that’s decidedly solo. Solo albums have a strange pretension built into them, especially for someone with a career as long and as varied as Albarn. Does this mean the music between these sleeves is what he feels truly represents him, or is it that he simply couldn’t come up with an appropriate moniker for the project? I think, especially with Albarn, that it suggests this is musically him; this is what Damon Albarn creates when he is being himself in his studio, or wherever he creates music. Then again, that’s really the natural assumption of the solo record; it’s a notable musician’s departure from their band and what has made them successful previously, and thus the music they truly want to make.
Unlike McCartney and Lennon’s post-Beatles careers, which helped fans and critics solidify their respective songwriting techniques and foibles, Everyday Robots doesn’t really show much of Albarn’s songwriting process, other than his penchant for reflective, introspective, quieter tunes and his astounding ability to craft gorgeous melodies, aspects which could be gleaned by a decent retrospective. That’s not to say the album isn’t of interest. On the contrary, the songs that comprise Everyday Robots are all equally well written, beautiful, and elegant; they just belie the assumption of the advertised long-awaited solo record. Albarn is in here, but there’s no more of him here than there is in Demon Days, or The Good, the Bad, and the Queen, or Modern Life is Rubbish. Apparently Albarn is loathed for the façades he employs in his musical ventures; he’s never been himself in the public eye, which, when compared with regular bands (i.e. Oasis), people find fake and frustrating, dishonest and even desperate. I take this to be a simplistic reading of the man. Many artists, and for that matter musicians, perform as a sort of character, whether it be an exaggerated version of themselves, or an arrogant, entitled, brash “rockstar«. I mean, do we really believe Liam Gallagher acts the way he does in public to his mum, to his naked wife, to his young children when they ask why the sky is blue? I think not. It’s the performance of “Liam Gallagher”, just as it is when he’s on a stage, that we see in interviews and quotes in NME. I use the example of Oasis for the obvious reason of the perceived rivalry between them and Albarn’s Blur, but also because those who level this odd “fake” retort to admirers of Albarn clearly believe there is something more real about the Gallaghers and their brand of cocky British rock. That’s simply not true, of any musician or band or artist or actor or performer. There is always a character, always a performance, whether it be for the purposes of marketability or simply the particular performance that fits the package currently being worked upon. Yes Albarn performs under a sort of character, but I’d say his understated, relaxed nature suggests a more real person than the Gallaghers’ overblown cockery does.
So, is Everyday Robots Damon Albarn sans façade? This whole idea of an artist/musician creating something and branding it with themself is interesting on its own. It suggests that this solo record is the music they would rather be making, or the music they wish they could have been making from the start, it’s just being in this band or that group was a more commercially viable way of getting to a point where they felt able to create on what they wanted to create the whole time. But that undermines the work they’ve done in the collaborative projects, and surely Albarn feels that his work in Blur and Gorillaz, though not as contemporary, is still important and is worthy of existence and cultural consumption. So then is the solo record simply meant as an example of what makes the individual tick; a microcosm of them away from the group environment of a band. But then that suggests a sort of watered down version of the full band experience, or an unfettered experiment in self-centred abandon. Thankfully Everyday Robots avoids these stigmas, but it does so by not really living up to its branding as a solo record by Damon Albarn. It seems he’s almost performing under a new moniker, that of Damon Albarn; the music is just as detached and affecting as anything he’s done under any other name. It could be loosely chalked up as a folktronica album, but there are elements of trip-hop, folk, electronica and afro-beat that have been evident on Albarn’s musical radar since Think Tank.
The opening track, which is also the lead single and title track, “Everyday Robots”, is smooth trip-hop with a lilting, chopped up violin sample and poly-rhythmic crackling beat, beneath Albarn’s reflection on technology and its effects on human interaction (“We’re everyday robots on our phones / In the process of getting home”). Humans and the way they interact seems to be somewhat of a theme throughout the album, gorgeous lyrics including “It’s hard to be a lover with the TV on” from “The Selfish Giant” and “It'll be a silent day / I'll share with you / Fighting off the hostiles / With whom we collude / Hoping to find the key / To this play of communications / Between you and me” from “Hostiles”. There’s something beautifully mundane about Albarn’s lyrics (delivered in his melancholic twang) that is reflected in the music. There’s a constant crackling, jingling sort of sound that rumbles beneath the entirety of the album, lending a well-worn and hand-made aesthetic to the music, which itself is a genius combination of live instruments (acoustic guitar, piano, ukulele and choirs) and electronic beats and samples. It feels homespun and humdrum, like anyone could have knocked it together, which pushes the beautiful melodies to even more breathtaking heights. “Lonely Press Play” is a stunning song once it gets going, its ramshackle parts all whirring and spinning together beneath Albarn’s masterful chorus, then there’s “You and Me”, the seven minute piece with the unexpected but appreciated steel drum solo midway through, a song that again features a genius chorus underpinned by perfect folk/electronica trappings. The songs do tend to blur together when heard in the background, but this isn’t so much a detraction as it is a testament to their gentle nature and expertly produced oeuvre. The one song that stands out on pure tone is “Mr. Tembo” the decidedly upbeat ukulele-featuring tune about a baby elephant, apparently written for Albarn’s daughter. It’s a fun and jaunty tune, saved from tweeness by the addition of a choir and that crackle that draws the songs into an album. Aside from “Mr. Tembo”, all the tracks are introspective, reflective, emotive, and reserved, all displaying carefully measured string section swells or finger-picked acoustic guitar runs. It’s all lovely, it’s all clever, but it doesn’t feel particularly attributable to Damon Albarn; in other words, it’s no great revelation of the man behind Blur, Gorillaz, Monkey and Dr. Dee. It feels like another fantastic album made by the guy who’s essentially made a career of solo albums, but one that doesn’t bring us any closer to Damon Albarn, the person. I’m content with one more great Albarn album though, regardless of its intents and purposes.