Review: Damon Albarn, Everyday Robots

What is this thing called Everyday Robots?
Damon Albarn Everyday Robots

opinion byPETER TABAKIS < @ptabakis >

What is this thing called Everyday Robots? The answer appears straightforward: the first solo album by Damon Albarn. It’s being marketed as such, and if you squint hard enough, perhaps it is. Of course, you’ll have to forget his other debut collection of solo material, the tossed-off 2003 release Democrazy. That shouldn’t be a problem, considering only die-hard fans (and unlucky music reviewers) have ever heard it. But what distinguishes Everyday Robots from the rest of Albarn’s prolific output, you may wonder? Well, it obviously doesn’t bear the moniker of Blur or Gorillaz, nor does it include any of his former bandmates. This, however, merely narrows things down tomyriadside-projects, including a coupleof operas, which all share the same distinction.

It’s been said that Everyday Robots is Albarn’s most personal work, but this claim too seems dubious. The album – produced by Richard Russell, with guest appearances by Brian Eno, Natasha Khan (of Bats for Lashes), and a full gospel choir – wasn’t recorded in artistic seclusion. It’s arguably as “collaborative” as The Good, the Bad, & the Queen and Rocket Juice & the Moon. Albarn’s hand has shaped every note of music he’s released within the auspices of these group efforts. In fact, we’ve been confronted with Everyday Robots’ themes since Modern Life is Rubbish, and its sonic trappings since Graham Coxon exited Blur.

Everyday Robots isn’t a departure as such, but a distillation of the world-weary and downcast artist we’ve previously seen just here and there (and often with a chaser of buoyant melodies). For better or worse, the album presents a gloomily coherent statement – a platform for Albarn’s ongoing, and complicated, problems with modernity. The instrumentation here is frequently skeletal, his lyrics mostly forlorn. Lurching drum-machine beats, gentle piano chords, and somber string arrangements form the musical groundwork upon which Albarn sighs about the encroaching dominance of technology. If you’re the kind of person who shares this worldview, you may find Everyday Robots an often lovely demonstration of post-millennium tension. If not, the album’s monotony can fast become punishing.

I’ve listened to Everyday Robots a few dozen times now. I still can’t articulate from memory any meaningful difference between, say, “Hostiles” and “The History of the Cheating Heart.” (I know one of them features an acoustic guitar. Oh wait, they both do. Ugh. Never mind.) A couple of songs do manage to break through the haze as exceptions, thanks to the presence of the jubilant Leytonstone City Mission Choir. One is “Heavy Seas of Love,” which finds Eno and Albarn trading spirited vocals. It concludes the album on an optimistic and hand-clapping high. The other is a song about an orphaned baby elephant. Though the majority of these twelve tracks are unremarkable, only “Mr. Tembo” could be characterized as embarrassing. And yet I love it, unabashedly. It sounds like a lost Lion King number, in the best possible way. “Mr. Tembo” is a reminder that Albarn can still be charming and irreverent, and also an expert melody maker.

So a children’s tune represents the pinnacle of Damon Albarn's first official solo outing. This is the man responsible for one of the finest love songs of the 1990s and also one of the most delirious dance tracks of the decade that followed. His legacy includes a band that defined a popular subgenre and another that achieved enormous creative and commercial success by revamping the Archies. Large crowds continue to hear his voice woo-hooing through speakers at sporting events. Everyday Robots feels like a half-hearted retreat by comparison. The album sadly calls to mind a truism of investing: past performance is not an indication of future results. C