"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Loud And Quiet APRIL 2014 - by Stuart Stubbs
DAMON ALBARN: EVERYDAY ROBOTS
Taking Blur's Leisure as a starting point, it's taken Damon Albarn twenty-two years and a couple of false starts to reach his hands-down debut solo album. In 2003, Albarn released Democrazy, a collection of fourteen songs in various states of completion, recorded in isolated hotel rooms as Blur toured Think Tank. But Democrazy didn't count - it was exclusively released on ten-inch picture vinyl, Gorillaz nabbed the best tracks for Demon Days and Pitchfork gave it a 3.2. Dr Dee faired slightly better in 2012, at least in the eyes of the people who admired the balls of a record so self-interested as to be based on the life of Queen Elizabeth I's medical adviser. Dr Dee was a shit sandwich to swallow, though; a frustratingly fractured pastoral accompaniment of hey-nonny-nonny to an original opera of the same name that meant it didn't count as a debut solo album either. Everyday Robots is without a get-out-of-jail-free card, not that it needs one.
Unsurprisingly, it's a record pitched as Albarn's most personal yet, and as a forty-five-year-old dad, the days of covertly singing about heroin are long gone as Everyday Robots takes its lead from Under The Westway and Fool's Day rather than Beetlebum, stylistically and in the literal natural of the lyrics. Albarn rarely dresses anything up, and where easy-to-crack codes like "We're everyday robots on our phones" would damn Chris Martin, say, there's a sense that we'll happily be spoon-fed a little by Albarn - it's innocent and sweet rather than trite and patronising. Occasionally we get something metaphorical (the piano-led, Natasha Khan-backed The Selfish Giant, which crackles with a dusty sample that surfaces throughout this predominantly acoustic affair, is not about a loved one but a nuclear submarine), but on a record that is so indebted to its words, it's when Albarn pushes literal storytelling to a childlike extreme that Everyday Robots basks in no nonsense intimacy - sometimes, it seems, the best way to get personal is to get simple, and then make that a little less complicated. And so where the mistakenly enjoyable ukulele jam of Mr Tembo transpires to be about an elephant rather than the Cbeebies character its toy-box of twinkling, World Music instruments suggests, it's the initially trudging Hollow Ponds that turns out to be the album's star-turn - a matter-of-fact tour of Albarn's life that takes in the drought of '76, the destruction of his childhood surroundings in Essex and the graffiti that inspired Modern Life Is Rubbish.
Hollow Ponds slowly clips on in the form of one continual verse, presumably like life itself. Here Albarn sounds more plaintive than anything else, and Everyday Robots, which also repeatedly tackles the theme of nature versus machines ("It's hard to be a lover with the TV on," Albarn laments on The Selfish Giant) is precisely so effective because of its overarching sober tone.
It's not all been glib by the time we reach Heavy Seas Of Love - a celebratory, hymnal closer (and highlight) that features Brian Eno's hidden, rich vocals, and a gospel choir to make it the album's Tender - but on Everyday Robots' Albarn is dealing with nostalgia, technological Armageddon and, most seriously of all, himself. Its heartfelt realism and simplicity is perfectly judged.