As was the case with roughly half the people I went to university with, the first record I bought was Parklife by Blur.
We came for it’s pop-centric charms, the shout along chorus of Girls & Boys, the full on Brit-Brat nature of the title track. We stayed for it’s subtle, stunning beauty! The End was heartbreak for those nowhere near a broken heart, Clover Over Dover took the Essex boys down to the tip of the country and summarised everything good about British music, let alone Brit Pop. It was the singles that made Blur successful, it was the albums that maintained that success.
From Parklife, came Blur. Arguably the first post-Britpop album, it was the sound of a band uprooting their quintessentially English sound, and placing us squarely in the heart of America. Song 2 may have played dumb, but it was the ultimate ear-worm. It was also a complete misrepresentation of the album it sat upon. Blur’s disparate influences always made them far more eclectic than their contemporaries, and here we got the whole lot thrown at the page. So while we got big, loud, dumb rock songs, we also got Country Sad Ballad Man, the stoner (or perhaps more accurately opiate) rock of Beetlebum, and the beautiful acoustic, Coxon fronted number You’re So Great.
13 came and was misrepresented as a gospel record, when in reality it was a heartbreak record; desperately sad and stunningly beautiful. Think Tank showed there was life after Graham, then in it’s closing track, Battery In Your Leg, with it’s slow motion, high emotion guitar line, kicked us square in the shins and said how dare you think they don’t miss him. Blur hiatused, tears were shed, we wondered if we’d ever see Damon and co again….we did, we still will.
Three Gorillaz albums, The Good, The Bad and The Queen, Dr Dee, various stunning projects with African musicians, all on top of seven Blur albums, Damon’s been busy, but now 25 years since Seymour became Blur, he’s finally gone solo. Odd timing? Well you might be surprised…
DAMON ALBARN – EVERYDAY ROBOTS
The album opens with a bizzare vocal clip, a wobbly voiced stand up, states “they didn’t know where they was going, but they knew where they was wasn’t it” there’s a ripple of laughter then a haunting, North African tinged musical line, that sounds somewhere between a synthesiser and a snake charmers pungi. In anyone else’s musical armoury it would sound out of place, in Damon’s it sounds oddly normal.
It’s a sign of the unique place in the market Mr Albarn has carved out from himself. He’s now so far removed from the man who sang She’s So High, on 1991’s Leisure, that’s he barely recognisable. Oddly it was during the demise of his first band that Damon started to find his voice. Think Tank is the starting point for anyone trying to pin-point where Everyday Robots comes from. It bares no relation to Parklife or The Great Escape, neither does it have anything in common with the album Blur, and little with 13. However on the final, or perhaps latest Blur album the true Damon sound started to emerge, combining the influence of a quintessentially British acoustic sound with African instrumentation, and electronic percussion. We got songs like Out of Time, Good Song and Moroccan People’s Revolutionary Bowls Club, that combined both his new found sound, and his ever evolving songwriting prowess. Whilst previously he seemed to want to clown around on every track, here there were silly moments sure, but far more we got a sense of heartbroken longing mixed with an odd touch of optimism. Tracks often breaking down to leave, his voice alone carrying a melody, full of longing and warmth.
It seems odd now to remember that at one point, it was largely accepted that Mr Albarn wasn’t much of a singer. It’s not that he has become a better singer, it is just he now knows his limitations, knows what his voice can do and uses it to great affect. A sense of humility has crept into his vocal, while once he sounded brash and arrogant, now he sounds more refined, more likeable. Where his voice cracks, it add character, rather than detracting from the music.
If this is all sounding a tad too serious, then don’t break into a full on panic. This, his debut solo album, also contains Mr Tembo, a track Damon wrote for an orphaned baby Elephant, he met at a zoo in Tanzania. It is every bit as child like and delightful as you would imagine it would be. Pairing a gospel choir with a guitar line and a bouncy African lilt to it. It features a brilliantly over the top vocal sample of a ships captain lamenting his crew with the line “Fred, will you take those lions off the front of the boat, good god man.” Despite the fact it contains a section where Damon, in all seriousness breaks out into something resembling a rap, it is a wonderful moment of lightness in a generally down tempo set. The decision to release it as a single might be a master stroke, though it is definitely not representative.
The album attempts to cast Damon as ageing man, out of touch with the modern world. Somehow for someone using such sophisticated and modern production techniques this doesn’t quite sit right. Though when, on the albums title track he sings of “everyday robots” who “just touch thumbs” and are “getting old” he makes a very convincing grumpy old man. A trick he repeats on Photographs (You Are Taking Now) as he warns us to be careful how we document our life passing by, the track also contains the fantastic line “we were walking like zombies hungover, to the church of John Coltrane, eight hours on a bus from sunset with freedom taking cocaine” I haven’t got a clue what it means but it sure sounds good!
On the albums stand out track, The Selfish Giant, we also find Damon questioning the world the way it is now, “it’s hard to be a lover when the TV’s on”; if anything it’s a modern update to the Blur classic End Of A Century. If then he was questioning how “your mind gets dirty when you get closer to thirty” he is now long past that landmark and looking longingly back on drug use, dreaming about people leaving as “every atom falling in the universe is passing through our lives”. Musically it is an absolute master piece, swooping strings, over a pulsating bass and a haunting piano line. It’s every bit as good as Gorillaz best track, On Melancholy Hill, and that is high praise indeed, in terms of tying simplicity and beauty it may just be the best thing he has ever written.
The albums other recurring theme is another classic in the history of human writing: loneliness. It seems to permeate the entire album. A track called Lonely Press Play, is fairly self explanatory but “‘Cause you’re not resolved in your heart, you’re waiting for me, to improve” is heartbreaking even by the high standards set elsewhere. Even when in Hostiles he is not physically alone “it’ll be a silent day, I share with you.”
On You and Me, there is some fairly explicit references to drug use to grab the attention, but hidden beneath that is yet more tales of troubled relations, and the all too common feeling of being alone together. It’s a spectacularly produced song, with a hint of dub step in the heavy bass and twitching electronics that make up the chorus, as a melancholy piano line takes us towards the end, we find Damon looking “at the morning and wondering how I got here” it is as harrowing as it is compelling.
This being the work of Mr Albarn there is a twist in the tale. Following the horrifyingly honest tail of failed relations, The History of a Cheating Heart, which would slot beautifully onto 13’s melancholic drift, we get Heavy Seas of Love as an album closer, again it is far removed from what’s going on elsewhere. It starts off like a Noel Coward vignette, before breaking into a delightful soul number, even when he’s talking about love it’s portrayed as heavy, with an implication of it weighing down upon him.
The album is a wonderful collection of tracks, but perhaps due to the nature of a recording process, that saw him bring 60 plus tracks to co-producer Richard Russell, it doesn’t always seem to fit cohesively together as a record in it is own right. It’s a minor criticism though for one simple reason, the pure quality of the recordings on show, it’s probably the most honest record of his career and sees a real step up in the quality of his songwriting, no mean feat when you’ve got a back catalogue that is so strong. More than anything else this record sounds, brilliant and unmistakably like Damon Albarn, 25 years in and more distinctive and brilliant than ever.
Everyday Robots is out now on Parlophone. Damon Albarn is on tour now.