IS IT surprising Damon Albarn has taken this long to make a solo album? As one of the major figures in British popular music for close to 25 years, Blur, Gorillaz, his collaborations with African musicians and composer Michael Nyman, have given him plenty creative endeavours to be going on with.
Everyday Robots is both recognisably Albarn and also something of a surprise. Unlike the busy, full, psychedelic sound of Blur, or the melectro/hip-hop/rock hybrid of Gorillaz, this is an album of pared back, stripped down music.
Almost uniformly, the songs are held together by slow, heartbeat pulse, drum machine rhythms, with acoustic guitar and piano, as well as snippets of electronic noise, layered lightly and unobtrusively over the top.
This is not to say the songs all sound the same. Rather, it’s about giving space to Albarn’s voice and the melodies it carries, and to emphasise the melancholy at the heart of each track, and by extension, the album.
A slight exception is the Leonard Cohen-esque ‘The History Of The Cheating Heart’, with Albarn backed by acoustic guitar, and no electronics to be heard, but the minimalism and sense of space remain essential to the song’s arrangement.
A major theme of Everyday Robots is how technology both aids and hinders existence: “We are everyday robots on our phones/in the process of getting home/looking like standing stones/out there on our own.”
The digital age may have made communication and many aspects of life more efficient and easier, but social networks, sat-navs, and smartphones, despite facilitating greater communication, still cannot answer deeper needs of the human condition, and technology increasingly removes us from the face-to-face encounter, making us more alone, more isolated.
Conversely, the beautifully languid folk-soul of ‘Lonely Press Play’, puts forward a different view, that technology can heal the loneliness, through its ability to provide music and means of escape to other emotional experiences - not as an answer, but as a means until an answer can be found (“you’re not resolved in your heart/you’re waiting for me”).
One of Blur’s chief strengths has always been their understanding of anthemics and Everyday Robots demonstrates this quality as well, particularly on the insanely catchy world-music pop of ‘Mr Tembo’, with a celebratory, uplifting Afro-gospel, singalong, chorus that belies the sadness of the song’s subject matter. Closing track ‘Heavy Seas Of Love’, also benefits from a big vocal performance from Albarn and a grandstanding soul chorus.
Albarn’s solo debut opens and closes strongly, but that does mask a rather weak mid-section with songs that are adequate, but lacking the inspiration of those which bracket them. That said, by any measure Everyday Robots is a very fine affair - thoughtful, intelligent, clever left-field pop - you would expect no less from Albarn, and long time admirers of the man will find much to admire and enjoy here.