Album Review: Damon Albarn - Everyday Robots

Album Reviews
Jacob Webb

Though it's the first album released solely under his own name, there is a strong argument to be made that Everyday Robots is not the official solo debut of English legend Damon Albarn. That could be the soundtrack to the 1999 film Ravenous, which was the first music outside of his then-main band Blur to be explicitly attributed to Albarn. It could also be the 2001 self-titled debut from Gorillaz, a project that is, musically speaking, essentially Albarn and whoever is on his list of collaborators at the time. There's also a minority of Albarn apostles that would consider Blur's Think Tank, the band's only album without Albarn's creative foil Graham Coxon, could be a worthy contender for the title, but none of these are quite true. When approaching a musical polymath like Albarn – whose 26-year career includes one of the best bands of the '90s, the world's most successful virtual band, and an endlessly-growing set of one-offs – it can be hard to see where the 46-year old songwriter ends and any one of his numerous monikers begin. So while the accuracy of Everyday Robots' nomenclature is debatable, what's inarguable is that Everyday Robots is Albarn's first solo album in the sense that it's his first record where the listener doesn't have to work to discern through the lens of one of Albarn's artistic pretenses to see the man behind them.

After working together on Bobby Womack's 2012 album, The Bravest Man In The Universe, XL Recordings head Richard Russell requested that Albarn make a solo album, which he would produce. (The pair considered starting a newly christened project before opting to stick to the original plan.) In addition to being credited as a co-writer on the whole album, Russell's presence as a producer is more palpable than any of Albarn's previous behind-the-boards collaborators. (Which is no small feat, considering Albarn has logged albums with, among others, Stephen Street, William Orbit, and Danger Mouse.) Like his work on Gil Scott-Heron's I'm New Here and The Bravest Man In The Universe, Russell's production is sparse, meaningful with his arrangements in the sort of minimalist style that has suited Jamie xx so well. Wisely, this puts Albarn firmly in the foreground, which a stark difference than the production of the colorful, busy songs that Albarn produced in Blur or Gorillaz. Russell's drum programming is often ghostly in its slow pace and its sparseness, and it provides Albarn with a sonic backdrop that is well-suited for the album's reflective nature. Even on the more orchestrated moments like the title track or "You and Me", the album's seven-minute centerpiece, Russell refrains from placing more than the minimum amount of instrumentation behind Albarn, and its hard to imagine Everyday Robots working as well as it does without Russell's presence.

But as crucial as Russell's production is to the album, this is undoubtedly primarily a work of Damon Albarn. The hallmarks of Albarn's catalog - a personal theme projected through the guise of a larger societal construct, a decidedly English influence in the songwriting, the creative use his guest musicians – remain intact, although they're less directly evident here than they are on much of his past work. Like London to Parklife or Hades to Gorillaz, Everyday Robots' setting is in Albarn's memories, but the album isn't strictly nostalgic; Albarn's recollections on romance, growing up, and - as nearly every pre-release article mentions - his heroin use are often juxtaposed with his observations on modern technology, specifically how it either facilitates or hinders interpersonal communication. Considering the prevalence of this theme and the album's title, it would be easy to write off Albarn as a technophobe, cynically lamenting a generation lost to selfies. But neither of those charges sticks to Albarn; he was an early adopter of the iPad (the fourth Gorillaz album and the "Lonely Press Play" video were both recorded on one) and while some of his most well-known work is based in societal critique, many of Albarn's best songs ("Tender", "The Universal") attest that he has always been an optimist at heart. Upon repeated listens, Everyday Robots reveals that it's not an album about technology, but rather about relationships. When Damon and Bat For Lashes' Natasha Khan croon "it's hard to be a lover when the TV's on/and nothing's in your eye" in the chorus of album highlight "The Selfish Giant", their melancholy harmony emphasizes the latter lyric with a sigh, cleverly using Khan's voice as an echo, rather than a foil, of Albarn's longing sentiment. On "Lonely Press Play", an ode to the ineffably consoling nature of music, he follows up the titular refrain by revealing why he turned to seek solace in a song in the first place ("you're not resolved in your heart/you're waiting for me/to improve"). While the title track presents technology as a distraction to individuals "in the process of getting home", Albarn tellingly acknowledges that humans can create just as much of a barrier in "The History Of A Cheating Heart" ("I do love you but it's just a fact/the history of a cheating heart is/always more than you know").

While ten of Everyday Robots' tracks are quiet and leanly constructed, the album contains two sonic outliers that augment the rest of the album's themes, albeit indirectly. The first is "Mr. Tembo", an upbeat track about a baby elephant, and the second is "Heavy Seas of Love", a duet of sorts with Brian Eno, who opts out of his typical producer role to make a rare guest vocal appearance. After ten tracks of pensive self-examination, "Heavy Seas of Love" is almost cathartic in its choir-assisted release. Eno and Albarn's uplifting call-and-response hymn about the perceived omnipresence of love is an answer of sorts to many of the questions Albarn asks earlier in the album; because of this, the song's role on the album is only second in importance to "Mr. Tembo". Unlike the three tracks that precede it, "Mr. Tembo" is loud and whimsical (its Swahili title translates to "Mr. Elephant" in English), which throws off the album's pacing in more ways than one, and in the context of a whole album-playthrough, it's a little jarring to hear Albarn jump from singing about loneliness to picking up a ukelele and leading the Leytonstone City Mission Choir in a song about an elephant walking up a hill. However, there's one aspect of "Mr. Tembo" that Albarn has only mentioned in interviews that not only justifies the song's inclusion on the album, but also turns it into one of the album's cornerstones: the song was written as a birthday gift for Albarn's daughter. At its most basic level, it's a heartwarming gesture that breaks up the oft-solemn tone that dominates Everyday Robots, but even more than that, the song, which was partially recorded on a phone call from Albarn to Russell (another instance of the album's technology/humanity theme), shows that even when he's trying to be straightforward, Albarn's work is still elevated by his dedication to crafting nuanced, detailed records that can't be fully absorbed in a single listen. From the Richard Buckley snippets to the geographical references to his hometown to the subtle Blur callouts, Albarn structures Everyday Robots like a puzzle that asks to be solved by both the listener and Albarn. For the first time in his career, Albarn isn't the architect of his artistic universe, but rather an inhabitant who's still exploring his own reality, leaving some questions unanswered and paths untraveled by the album's closing moments. It's a new approach for Albarn, and although Everyday Robots falls just short of ranking among his best work, its personally exploratory nature is a risk that pays off. Everyday Robots is a deep, rewarding album that, considering Albarn's notoriously fluctuating attitudes towards the future of Gorillaz and Blur as well as Albarn's surprising eagerness to discuss the album, may be the first chapter in the story of Albarn's next major character: himself.

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