Creative Loafing JUNE 10, 2014 - by Kevin Forest Moreau


Everyday Robots is a lifeless blur

Damon Albarn has earned the right to make whatever kind of record suits his fancy. From the era-defining Britpop of his standout early '90s output with alt-rockers Blur through the electronica/hip-hop excursions of "virtual supergroup" Gorillaz and frequently beguiling side projects (The Good, The Bad & The Queen, Rocket Juice & The Moon), the forty-six-year-old singer, songwriter, and performer has socked away a sizeable reserve of credibility.

Over the last dozen or so years, he's proven especially versatile, navigating disparate musical landscapes not due to a reckless sense of exploration for its own sake, but seemingly out of a growing dismissal of the very notion of borders or limits. The resulting albums have certainly had their uneven moments, but say this for the guy: He's never been boring.

Which is what makes the languid Everyday Robots, released in April, such a shock. Low-key to the point of somnolence, the album quickly establishes a sparse, mechanically melancholy atmosphere so pervasive that even the upbeat Mr. Tembo, a skiffling, ukulele-powered shot of whimsy about (of all things) a baby elephant, and the appealingly jazzy, late-night vibe of Lonely Press Play don't penetrate the gloom for very long.

That's not to say that there's nothing interesting going on here. The opening title track makes a strong statement about the increasing vapidity and isolating effects of our technological obsessions: "We are everyday robots on our phones... looking like standing stones," Albarn sings, dismissing our smartphone-and-Facebook-obsessed culture as "in the process of being sold" and "stricken in a status sea." Here, the muted musical backdrop and the singer's hollow delivery feel entirely appropriate.

Elsewhere, Albarn delves into uncharacteristically autobiographical waters on Hollow Ponds ("Modern Life was sprayed onto a wall in 1993," he sings, referencing Blur's '93 release Modern Life Is Rubbish). And he proves he's still capable of turning an absorbing phrase or two: "It'll be a silent day, I share with you / Fighting off the hostiles with whom we collude," he intones on Hostiles.

But the overlong You & Me and the vexingly repetitive Photographs (You Are Taking Now) wear out their welcome quickly, and fade from memory long before they're through. The closing Heavy Seas Of Love offers a teasing glimpse of the album that could have been, a charming guest vocal from Brian Eno and an assist from the Leytonstone City Mission Choir reminding us that Albarn has long been a risk-taker well worth following.

Taken on their own, about half the tracks on Everyday Robots are worth spending some time with. But immersion in the full album is a curiously deadening experience. That may very well be the point, given the themes nodded to on Everyday Robots and Lonely Press Play. But if Albarn's aim was to underline the sense of detachment and mounting loneliness informing those tracks, then he can be said to be a victim of his own success.

Everyday Robots proves a frustrating and hopefully temporary detour in Albarn's catalog, its more thoughtful moments drowning in a wash of torpor that seems to double the album's forty-six-minute running time. Albarn has demonstrated that he can be an exciting and surprising artist. Alas, the most surprising thing about Everyday Robots turns out to be its lack of excitement.