INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
Uncut MAY 2014 - by Andy Gill
DAMON ALBARN: EVERYDAY ROBOTS
Journey through the past... The songwriter's solo debut proper is his most personal statement yet.
Ironically, Damon Albarn's most personal project so far doesn't open with the singer himself, but with the whiskery bohemian tones of '50s jazz-rap cat Lord Buckley, renowned for his surreal beat monologues, often delivered while sporting military 'tache and pith helmet. "They, they didn't know where they was going," barks the Most Immaculately Hip Aristocrat, "but they knew where they was wasn't it."
Despite being an outsider's words, they are remarkably apt for Albarn, who despite his success has managed to remain something of an outsider in the pop universe himself. Indeed, it could be the mission statement for his career. For wherever his interests lie at any particular moment - imaginary plastic beach, pancontinental musical hybrid, oriental fantasy, enigmatic historical polymath - the one thing you can guarantee is that it won't be the same impulse driving him next week, next month, next year.
Which makes Everyday Robots all the more surprising: because for the first time, this always forward-moving artist has chosen to hit pause and rewind on his life, scanning back through snatched glimpses of childhood, adolescence and problematic maturity to create a musical portrait of himself. Not a strict, naturalistic portrait - those are rarely successful, and too often degenerate into point-scoring retribution - witness Dylan's Ballad In Plain D and the bitchier entries in The Beatles' breakup - but a coded, semi-abstract picture in which musical shapes and lyrical images assume anthropomorphic forms and suggestive tableaux, whether it's children swimming in an East London pond, eight hours of "freedom taking cocaine" on a tour bus, Notting Hill vibrating with post-carnival energy, or "flying over black sands in a glass aeroplane", a particularly resonant line from Photographs.
That track also features a proto-hipster soundbite, Timothy Leary warning some psychedelic initiate about being careful with photographs. It's a premise Albarn extends into the notion "When the photographs you're taking now are taken down again," an acknowledgement of the inevitable cycles of time that render all images transitory, even as the images freeze all motion: that frozen moment hurtles into the past, and is gone. Or at least, it used to be gone: now, just pressing "SEND" impales the subject on the spike of global ridicule, forever.
This is a subtext of Everyday Robots, the way that interpersonal communication is increasingly ceded from a world of fleshly bonhomie to a technological realm, one more methodical yet bewilderingly abstract - how can you tell that the "person" you're "chatting" with on social media is what they claim to be, or indeed, not just a cunningly programmed machine? "We are everyday robots on our phones," suggests the title track, "...looking like standing stones, out there on our own." A rickety mechanical gait carries a typically poignant Albarn melody picked out in a simple piano figure, with a curiously unsettling recurrent high-pitched violin squeak lending a discomfiting edge to the wistful strings.
That musical formula dominates the arrangements of Albarn and producer Richard Russell, with songs suspended in a fragile net of glitchy found-percussion loops, field recordings, melancholy pastel melodies and tints of strings. It's beautifully designed to evoke both the reluctant abandonment of time in many songs, and the creeping alienation of "Hostiles" and The Selfish Giant. The latter is especially haunting and memorable, typically Albarn in the way it blends the engaging and the experimental, with delicate details of winds and glockenspiel picking out the sadness of the situation - "It's hard to be a lover when the TV's on, and nothing's in your eyes" - over Keith Jarrett-esque piano flourishes.
Elsewhere, wistful harmonium and swirling synth underscore Photographs, while piano and acoustic guitar surf the keening decline of Eno's synth on You And Me, its fading carnival glories condensed to a residue of steel pans about four minutes in. "I met Moko Jumbie, he walks on stilts through the All Saints Road," claims Albarn, referring to the African carnival spirit co-opted into the Notting Hill Carnival, but which he first encountered in the Congo. Another of his African encounters is celebrated in Mr. Tembo, the album's simplest, most joyous singalong moment. Dedicated (and first sung to) a baby elephant in Tanzania, it's a light, frisky ukulele number over a shuffle-rattle percussion groove, with a gospel choir from Albarn's childhood manor of Leytonstone brimming with upful exuberance on the hooky refrain. The elephant, apparently, was being transported elsewhere: "He's where he is now, but it wasn't what he planned," sings Albarn, creating a neat link back to the Lord Buckley quote that opens the album.
His Leytonstone roots are referred to again in another of the standout tracks, Hollow Ponds, perhaps the most ambitious attempt at telescoping time here. Brief glimpses whisk us back and forth: kids cooling in a pond in the heatwave of 1976; the road he once lived in being severed by the M11 link road in 1991; seeing the graffiti "modern life is rubbish" sprayed on a wall in 1993. Flugelhorn lends a touch of wan yearning over acoustic guitar arpeggios and organ, with evocative children's playground voices summoning us back to simpler times.
On a sometimes courageously candid album, perhaps the most revealing track is The History Of A Cheating Heart, where over delicately naked acoustic guitar and a poignant three-chord string figure, he admits the intrinsic infidelity of creativity: "I carry this upon my back always / If you fall, then I will put you back / I do love you, but it's just a fact / The history of a cheating heart is always more than you know." It's a moment of brave vulnerability characteristic of what is a predominantly melancholy album, which is perhaps an unavoidable corollary of retrospection. It's surely this realisation that leads Albarn to close the album with Heavy Seas Of Love, where Eno's fulsome, cheery lead vocal drives home just how sad the rest of the album is by comparison. But the hopeful tone of this song of fellowship points to another aspect of Albarn's character - the outgoing, organisational spirit that pulls together diverse companies to create musical links between continents. For the most part here, however, Everyday Robots is a less ebullient, more intimate and reflective affair, as befits the tentative revelation of a man's soul.
Damon Albarn on his childhood, working with Eno and baby elephants...
I was listening to your album parked by a pond near Whipps Cross, and realised that you were actually singing about the place I was sitting. It was quite creepy.
Oh really? My God! That's funny, 'cos my new drummer has been playing the song for nearly a week, and he turns round and says, 'That's not about the Hollow Ponds, is it?' Er - yeah!
I knew about the Essex you, but not about the Leytonstone you.
Yes, I lived there for the first ten years of my life. I went from a multi-cultural, urban environment to a sort of Anglo-Saxon, rural, white conservative place. That transition is maybe what defines me.
I hadn't realised there was that suspension between the rural and the urban.
Well, you know, in a way the real motivation to get off my arse and make this record was to explain somehow that dichotomy in me. Because there has been an obsession with the rural, and also it explains a lot of my decisions since.
You have a forward-looking temperament musically, always moving on to new things, so what was it like to focus on looking back?
To do something completely retrospective, in the sense that it has this narrative that starts in 1976, with the heatwave, hanging out at the Hollow Ponds, was a new thing for me; I've made very personal records before, but none with this kind of chronology. There is a chronology to it, it doesn't stick to it but sort of flies all over the place. But in a way, it's my most narrative record, I suppose.
It has a very melancholic tone overall. Are you a melancholic person by nature?
I am musically, yes.
On the last track, the comparison between Eno's fruity vocal style and yours brings out just how melancholy the rest of the album is.
Yes, we talked about what we could do, listened to where Richard [Russell] and I were with the record, and he said he'd like to contrast our voices. And I was just excited to get him singing again, because I love his voice.
I know you worked with Richard before on the Bobby Womack album. What kind of a working relationship do you have with him?
A very good one. We were just finishing the Bobby record and thought we should do another - we even thought it might be good to start another band, be anonymous, all that bullshit - but then Richard came in one day and said, "What I would like to do is produce a record of you." So I let him be producer. Which, making a solo record, is an absolutely necessary thing to have on board - an editor, someone to talk about personal things with.
Tell me about Mr. Tembo.
That would never have seen the light of day if it hadn't been for Richard. That would have firmly remained among the songs I write for family, kids' birthdays - in this case, a baby elephant. Over the years I've written loads of songs for my family, I sort of keep them separate, but I put it on a playlist of demos for the record, not for one second thinking Richard would pick up on it, but he did. And it's pretty much the same as it was the night I played it on a ukulele for this baby elephant in Tanzania.
It's rather like Woody Guthrie, he did a lot of songs for children, too.
That's a tradition that very English people, like The Beatles, did as well. I don't think it's unusual to put an innocent song in quite a dark narrative.
The gospel vocals on that...
They're from the City Mission on Colworth Road. It was the Pentecostal church literally at the end of my road, and it was a very bright childhood memory, standing outside, listening to the music coming out of there. I'm sure somehow it's connected to songs like "Tender", thirty or forty years later.
Presumably, You And Me is about your Ladbroke Grove time...
Well, I'm still there, really. I live with the ghosts of it, so to speak. Always after Carnival, there's this enormous residue of energy that hovers around for a few days. It's a Post- Carnival Apocalypse song!
Who is Moko Jumbie?
I've actually met the proper Moko Jumbie, when I went to Congo - he's represented in Carnival by the stilted people - that's a derivation of the Congolese Moko Jumbie spirit, a traditional tribal creature who travels around looking into people's houses.
I'm hearing stuff about Ladbroke Grove, tinfoil and lighter, and I'm thinking, 'Is it about a smackhead?'
Is it about a smackhead? Well, there's definitely an element of that in there.
The History Of A Cheating Heart - do you think the pursuit of an artistic vision is damaging to emotional stability?
I think it definitely can be. Because, as a songwriter, you need to feel stuff for it to come out honestly. And how do you do that? You do that by being curious, and curiosity is a very open book for a lot of fuck-ups in life.
HOW TO BUY... DAMON ALBARN
His ever-changing forays
DAMON ALBARN & MICHAEL NYMAN: RAVENOUS (1999) - The soundtrack to a black comedy about cannibalism in nineteenth-century America, Ravenous offers a wry balance between horror and humour. As it proceeds, more exotic instrumentation - zither, whistle, pump-organ and marimba - expands the range of emotions covered.
THE GOOD, THE BAD & THE QUEEN: THE GOOD, THE BAD & THE QUEEN (2007) - In its elegaic mood, its pastel melodies, its wistful tone of regret for lost places, and its interest in community, The Good, The Bad & The Queen is probably the most direct precursor to Everyday Robots. Quiet and subtle, it's a peculiar blend of disparate elements.
GORILLAZ: THE FALL (2011) - A solo album in all but name, The Fall was created on an iPad during a US tour. Again, geography figures heavily, in sketched impressions of the world passing by Albarn's tour bus, while the limited instrumentation and foundsound elements prefigure Everyday Robots, albeit with synths replacing strings.
DAMON ALBARN: DR DEE (2012) - Sketched in folksy early-music timbres, with classical singers shouldering much of the vocal duties, Dr Dee soundtracks a theatrical work about an Elizabethan polymath. Evoking Michael Nyman's early Peter Greenaway scores, it's best when Albarn blends in Eastern scales and kora.