Tuesday, April 29, 2014
Album Review: Damon Albarn - Everyday Robots
Rating: Woof Daddy
It's hard to believe that in his storied career, Blur frontman Damon Albarn has yet to put out an official solo release. Everyday Robots finds Albarn in a very melancholy mood, ruminating on his past as well as our society's current fixation with technology and the loneliness that it can perpetuate. Working with Richard Russell, the boss of XL Recordings who worked with Damon on Bobby Womack's album, The Bravest Man In The Universe, Albarn keeps a limited palate on these twelve tracks, mostly using glitchy drum machines, piano, strings, and subtle electronics. Every so often, there are glimpses of light and joy, but in his later years, Albarn is more in a reflective mood, casting greys and blacks through a foggy haze. Everyday Robots is that perfect rainy day record that you can sink into the couch and let its quiet power take over.
The title track starts off with a sample from British comedian Lord Buckley "They didn’t know where they was going but they knew where they was wasn’t it," which sort of encapsulates the mood and tenor of the record, that throughout his career Albarn has always been restless, never really sitting on his laurels for too long, willing to experiment and test his boundaries. It also sets the theme for Albarn's view of society in general, people never quite knowing what they want from life, but knowing they are doing it right. The beauty of this track is intoxicating. Moving simply over a stuttering drum beat, the somber piano chords, samples, and strings take the track to levels of the sublime. Albarn noting that for many the day to day grind leaves people wanting, "We are everyday robots on our phones/In the process of getting home/Looking like standing stones/Out there on our own."
These themes of alienation and loneliness appear throughout the record. On the delicate "Lonely Press Play," the characters retreat within themselves, comforted by technology. Albarn's haunting voice reaches out "You're waiting for me/To improve/Right here/When I'm lonely I press play;"
on "Photographs (You're Taking Now)," Albarn seems to be saying to set aside those technological crutches that they are taking you away from actually experiencing and being a part of the world. His warning that "This is a precious opportunity beware of the photographs you are taking now;"
while on the minimalist "The Selfish Giant," stark piano and strings echo over Albarn's sad refrain "I had a dream you were leaving/It's hard to be a lover when the T.V.'s on/and nothing's in your eye."
And yes, while this does make it seem like this is a hard slog of a record to get through, there are moments of joy and beauty as well that leak through the cracks. The jaunty "Mr. Tembo," a song about a baby elephant, is a sunny, warm number that will get you smiling.
And the closing track "Heavy Seas of Love," a collaboration with Brian Eno, is a gospel-influenced number that takes the album out on a high note, with Eno intoning "It’s in your hands/When the traces of dark come/To fade in the light/You’re in safe hands."
Everyday Robots, however, works best when it is in melancholy mood, and especially when Albarn gets in his confessional mode. The epic 7 minute track "You & Me" is an impressionistic look back at Albarn's heroin use, and how it has colored and affected his present and future.
While on perhaps the best track on the album "Hollow Ponds," Albarn looks back on definitive moments in his life, a heat wave in the summer of 1976, his first day of school in 1979, and seeing the graffiti in 1993 that would become the inspiration for Modern Life Is Rubbish. It's a meditative moment that gets to the heart of Albarn, and is why he will always be one of the UK's best songwriters.
For those expecting a more Britpop-ish record, Everyday Robots will likely be a disappointment. There are not a lot of hooks or even guitars on the record, and it consistently sits in a contemplative mood. Once you let the record take over for you, and you get caught up in its intoxicating spell, the sly charms and gorgeous instrumentation come out of the background. Everyday Robots is a phenomenal record that will sit high on my year end list.
Chilfos: masterpiece; coolest thing I've heard in ages.
Woof Daddy: excellent; just a hair away from being a masterpiece.
Grrrr: very good; will definitely be considered for my top releases of the year.
Yeah Daddy Make Me Want It: good; definitely invites further listens and piques one's interest for more material.
Meh: not horrible, but certainly not great; could have either been polished, trimmed, or re-thought.
Jeez Lady: what the hell happened? Just plain bad. They should hang their heads in shame and be forced to listen to Lady Gaga ad nauseam as penance.
Tragicistani: so bad, armed villagers with pitchforks and torches should run the artist out of the country for inflicting this abomination on the human race.