FOR ONE OF ROCK'S MOST famous figures, and, with Noel and Liam, the classic face of '90s Britpop, Damon Albarn still remains something of a puzzle. Such an extraordinary life, such a wealth of musical adventures, yet so many facets of the man have often felt veiled. His music, though stamped with his personality, has rarely dealt directly with the detail of his emotional life – though when he has diarised traumatic personal events, notably on Blur’s No Distance Left To Run, written in 1998 about the end of his relationship with Elastica’s Justine Frischmann, the results have possessed extraordinary power. Albarn’s decision to retreat, post-Blur, from a life lived in the public gaze and to launch Gorillaz as a ‘cartoon group’ in 2001, behind which he could enjoy a protective semi-anonymity while still selling millions of records, has done little to bring the ‘real’ Damon any closer. Nor has his torrent of millennial side-adventures, exploring interesting musical avenues and fusions – the self-explanatory Mali Music (2002); The Good The Bad And The Queen album (2006); the soundtrack for the Chinese opera Monkey: Journey To The West (2011); the DRC-inspired Kinshasa One Two (2011); his Afro-beat/white funk jam Rocket Juice And The Moon(2012); the Dr Dee stage musical (2013); his Africa Express tour – but giving little of himself away.
Albarn, it seems, has been so busy investigating the world outside himself that he’s neglected – or maybe simply postponed - looking inwards. Until now, that is. But Everyday Robots is not quite what you’d expect, or even perhaps want, from a Damon solo record. It probably won’t tell you too much about him that you hadn't guessed already. But it is rather good.
Not quite what you’d expect, or even perhaps want, from a Damon solo record.
The cover of Everyday Robots shows the artist in desert boots and green mod parka, seated on a stool, head bowed, looking forlorn. It is, wittingly or not, the antithesis of Modern Life Is Rubbish’s cocky, faux-yob iconography. Its dour mood of reflective middle-aged melancholia isn’t something an initial foray into the album will dispel. The over-riding first impression is of quiet, tick-tock percussion, minimal thud-thud bass, tinkling piano, mournful strings and, high in the mix, Albarn’s wistful tenor unfolding another slow, hazy rumination on something yet to be fully understood by the listener. Only the joyful gospel lilt of Mr Tembo – a story about a baby elephant Albarn met in Africa – sticks out from the glassine mist. That, and last track Seven Seas Of Love, an unlikely ‘80s pop throwback that sounds a little like an acoustic Heaven 17 covering The Monkees' Daydream Believer.
What’s abundantly clear is that Everyday Robots has no intention of coming to you; instead, its songs gently insist that you come to them. And patience and perseverance is bountifully rewarded. Albarn’s co-producer, XL Recordings’ Richard Russell (who worked with Damon on Bobby Womack’s The Bravest Man In The Universe) embraces an aesthetic where sparse, empty arrangements draw you towards the singer’s words. The title track, heralded by a Lord Buckley sample saying “They didn’t know where they was goin’, but they knew where they was, wasn’t it”, holds the key to the concept that binds together the first songs on the album: that we are beings lost and alienated in the sci-fi world of modern cities and technology, yet ineffably haunted and constricted by our ancient and enduring humanity. “We’re everyday robots on our phones,” sings Albarn, “like standing stones.”
Next up comes the aching Hostiles, an atmospheric, blurry time-lapse photograph of London’s rush hour with a pretty, doleful melody reminiscent of Lou Reed’s Perfect Day and a nagging, metronomic rhythm; and if that doesn’t lower you down into a soothing slough of despond, then the almost totally bereft and funereal sway of Lonely Press Play will. The arrival of Mr Tembo, the tale of the baby jumbo, all funky rhythms and happy, gospel backing courtesy of Leytonstone’s Pentecostal Mission Choir, is a welcome relief.
The Leytonstone connection isn’t accidental: it was the area in East London where Albarn lived as a child, when his father was lecturing in art at the NE London Polytechnic, before the family moved to a tiny village outside Colchester. As with The Good The Bad And The Queen, the capital city, past and present, becomes a character here, cropping up first in Hostiles then in an image of Argyll Street at dusk in The Selfish Giant, a sad, beautiful ballad bedecked with Satie-style piano figures, and Bat For Lashes' Natasha Khan ghostly echo of the singer's lead vocal.
But it’s on You And Me and Hollow Ponds where things get really interesting, and there's suddenly a sense of Albarn revealing to the world something new, private and important. The first, a crepuscular mood-piece with Brian Eno adding pulsating synths is the most startling of the two, seemingly revisiting the troubled Britpop comedown period in the late '90s that inspired Blur's harrowing 13. It begins with a reference to a stilt-walker on the All Saints Road in Ladbroke Grove, then goes on to describe "digging out a hole in Westbourne Grove" with "tin foil and a lighter, the ship across, five days on and two days off", the first real public admission of a period dabbling with opiates in the aftermath of Parklife and The Great Escape's success. There's an unusual soulfulness to the song that swells as Albarn duets with himself in a strange falsetto - "blame me, blame me… when twilight comes it all goes wrong again" - while references to the sun setting in September adds further autumnal colour to its melancholy undertow, before the song ends incongrously and uncertainly with climactic steel drums.
Hollow Ponds reveals more autobiographical detail and opaque insights into Albarn's psyche. Starting in the titular local E11 park of his childhood, it charts the milestones of Albarn's life as he now recalls them: the summer heatwave of 1976; his family's three-month sojourn on the Black Sea before settling in rural Essex; his elevation to secondary school in 1979; his favourite tree in the woods near his home, mysteriously desecrated one day with a pentangle; the "modern life is rubbish" graffito that in 1993 would launch him towards stardom. Picked guitar and a doleful trumpet melody with notes taken from Madness's Just Another Day serve only to further swaddle the track in layers of melancholia and mystery.
But - and here's the crux of it all - though undoubtedly crafted by an extraordinary hand, it's not entirely obvious what Albarn's trying to say about himself here, or why. That's he's not a very happy person? That life is about continual change or loss, for which he himself is partly responsible? Or simply that the world inside his head is a dreamy, ruminative place, swirling with a jumble of synesthesic images, curious thoughts and recollections? The hymnal Photographs (You Are Taking Now), poaching a sample from Timothy Leary's 'The Psycheledic Experience' warning listeners of the dangers of seeing life through a lens, adds to the intriguing impression of this album's revelatory middle section, not least through its bewitching image of a glass aeroplane flying over black sands, before crashing into a city, like much of this album its meaning characteristically obtuse, but its effect forcefully poetic.
Everyday Robots ends with the dual whammy of The History Of A Cheating Heart (which is "always more than you know"), a song reminiscent of Blur's gentle, reflective Out Of Time, but one leaving you guessing about whose heart is doing the cheating; and the Eno-enhanced pop magnificence of Heavy Seas Of Love, its Top Of the Pops circa 1985 ebullience demanding you clap along, whereas what you really want to do by this point is go and have a cup of tea and long think about your own life.
Subtly psychedelic, intuitively clever and constantly challenging, what Everyday Robots underlines is that Albarn is an artist of originality and depth, a master of the haunting, insidious melody and - perhaps this needs no reiteration - a gifted and inventive musician. It is also his finest (only?) traditional song-based rock/pop album since the Blur era. But whether this latest outpouring gives us any more clues as to who or what the 'real' Damon Albarn is remains uncertain. An enigma, possibly despite himself, but one who makes fascinating records.
Watch the video for Heavy Seas Of Love...