April 30, 2014

Test Spin: Damon Alburn, Everyday Robots

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For someone who spent most of the ’90s embodying the essence of the coked-up British wiseacre — for evidence, see the soft-porn stylings of the preposterous video for Blur’s “Country House” — Damon Albarn has always had a way with melancholy. Take “This Is A Low,” the closer to Blur’s U.K.-conquering masterpiece Parklife: In it, Albarn abandons the snark that characterized his biting character studies for solemn reflection on the Britain that once was. Since Blur’s breakup, Albarn has masked his musical identity with everything from The Good, The Bad and The Queen’s superstar lineup to the cartoon-fronted antics of trip-pop project Gorillaz. This isn’t to say that Albarn has been short on moments of abjectly earnest beauty — “Herculean” and “Melancholy Hill” hold up well against his best Blur ballads — but that he’s always had a way to distance himself from that emotional fragility. Even when he was exorcising the dissolution of his (possibly heroin-dependent?) relationship with Justine Frischmann on Blur’s 13, he still managed to stuff in a bunch of bollocks about how “space is the place.”

Albarn’s solo debut — though one could argue that Think Tank, the final Blur album, was as much of a solo effort as this one, at least from a compositional standpoint — promises to shed some light on our mysterious protagonist. Everyday Robots, a diverse but downbeat collection of songs, carries on Albarn’s eternal preoccupation with the rubbish of modern life. Opener “Everyday Robots” sets the agenda with Damon exclaiming that “we’re everyday robots on our phones / In the process of going home” over sinister strings and a patchwork drumbeat. Albarn is not, like Arcade Fire’s Winn Butler clumsily did on last year’s Reflektor, declaring war on technology — this is still that man who composed an entire Gorillaz record and shot two Everyday Robots videos with his iPad — but merely commenting on how we’ve come to rely on our machines for solace.

“When you’re lonely, press play,” he sings on one of the album’s strongest tracks, the dub-inflected ballad “Lonely Press Play,” and it’s a sentiment that you feel Albarn has lived out himself. He’s become something of a musical ambassador, and traveling the world can get lonely. Everyday Robots sounds like something of a travel record: Whether it’s Albarn befriending a baby elephant on the uplifting toe-tapper “Mr. Tembo,” the Trinidadian backdrop of “You and Me” or Albarn revisiting his old stomping grounds on “Hollow Ponds,” the songs are all imbued with equal amounts of worldliness and world-weariness. Nostalgia is another theme: “Modern Life was sprayed onto a wall in 1993,” Albarn sings on “Hollow Ponds,” referring to a wall near his home graffitied with the name of his breakthrough record. “Photographs” continues the nostalgia trip, reminiscing over “flying over black sands in a glass airplane” and taking cocaine on a bus to a jazz club.

I’m getting the sense that Albarn is acutely aware of his age — Parklife came out 20 years ago! — and, in a move that recalls his fellow elder statesman of indie rock in The National, is using moments on Everyday Robots to apologize for his youth. “A Selfish Giant” exemplifies this best, with lines about drugs “coursing in your blood” and passive romance over a classically distraught and removed piano chords. “It’s hard to be a lover when the TV’s on,” Albarn sighs, seemingly lamenting a youth spent shooting up heroin and getting pissed in Camden pubs with Blur bassist Alex James.

Like Albarn’s sentiments, the instrumentation on Everyday Robots is austere. Limiting themselves to mostly pianos, acoustic guitars, ramshackle drum parts and somber string sections, Albarn and producer Richard Russell have created an almost stubbornly simplistic soundscape. It’s a songwriter’s record through and through; Albarn and his touring band will have no trouble recreating every sound on the album when they take Everyday Robots on the road. But what it has in thematic consistent it lacks in moments of discovery or sheer adventure. 15 years after guitarist Graham Coxon’s departure from Blur, Albarn has struggled to find a collaborator who could add as much chaos and daring as the man who was once Britain’s finest guitarist (Noel Gallagher be damned).

I meant what I said about Everyday Robots sounding like The National’s recent output: like Trouble Will Find Me, it’s a stocktaking record that does not stray too far from the comfortable trappings of Albarn’s well-mined, though oft-deflected, introspective side. Though it lacks anything truly surprising — even Brian Eno’s contribution to the stomping, anthemic album-closer “Heavy Seas of Love” feels expected after the multitude of collaborators brought in for Plastic Beach — Everyday Robots is as exceptional a rainy day record as you can ask for.