After singing as the frontman of the legendary Britpop band Blur; being the musical powerhouse behind the best-selling virtual band on record, Gorillaz; working on a smattering of other side projects, including two operas; and reviving Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Bobby Womack’s career; apparently the time has finally come for Damon Albarn to work on a solo album. While some of the sounds on the record are very clearly evocative of his previous work, Albarn’s “Everyday Robots” does not shy away from innovation either, at times unprecedentedly playful, but also demonstrating a commitment to delve into the untouched corners of Albarn’s past.
Most of the referential tracks take aural cues from Gorillaz specifically. In “Photographs (You Are Taking Now),” there is a faintly grungy electronic break that screams “Plastic Beach.” The two instrumental interludes have enough atmospheric peculiarities and oddly deliberate piano part to easily find a home amongst some of Gorillaz’s B-Sides material. The epitome of these allusions to the past is “Hollow Ponds,” which is a slowly delivered account of Albarn’s life, complete with the years of some of the events. However, not all of the tracks fit this mold. The song “Mr. Tembo” unambiguously breaks away from any precedents. Its composition and instrumentation clearly have African influences, but unlike Albarn’s previous African collaboration albums, the track stays lighthearted as the story of a baby elephant is recounted over chirpy guitar notes and other quirky embellishments.
The album is dominated by Albarn’s contemplative and downtrodden vocals. This affect has, in the post-Blur era, become part of his signature; however, because of less assertive instrumentals compared to his previous work, the gloom in Albarn’s voice has never been more clearly articulated. Most of the tracks opt for a refined combination of piano, strings, acoustic guitar, and light percussion. The real success of the instrumentation comes from the cleanly composed subtleties, like the violin’s eerie chromaticism in the title track and the triplets played by a bass drum in “Photographs (You Are Taking Now).”
Albarn’s finesse is perhaps best exemplified in “You and Me,” which is actually a song about “you” and a song about “me” bridged together by an awkwardly chipper steel drum. The first half earnestly focuses on a dysfunctional relationship, during which Albarn makes use of “tin foil and a lighter.” At points, distraught vocals replace his typically pensive vibe. Albarn’s true genius shines through in the second, “me” half, where he is decidedly less discouraged. The unexpectedly compelling chorus features Albarn singing “You can blame me, blame me, blame me, blame me. / When twilight comes, all goes ’round again” in falsetto, asserting the song’s change of stance from experiential to existential.
“Everyday Robots,” however—much like Gorillaz’s “Demon Days”—ends on a markedly inspiring note despite the despondence that prevails elsewhere in the album. “Heavy Seas of Love,” which features vocalist Brian Eno and the Leytonstone Mission Choir, is a jubilant declaration of triumph, even if who is triumphing in what is not necessarily clear. The verses make use of Eno’s deep, rich voice as he comforts with lyrics like “When the world is too tall. / You can jump. You won’t fall. / You’re in safe hands.” On the other hand, the chorus showcases the sunny voices of the choir alongside Albarn’s own uncharacteristically upbeat vocals. The track actually benefits from the imperfections that occur when Albarn’s vocals are blended with the choir’s, which amplify the raw joy that is communicated and make the track more welcoming.
At this point in his career, Damon Albarn knows his way around a studio, and it is very clear that he delivered his vision and conveyed emotion in a very precise and expertly crafted manner. As his first solo album, there is not much more that could have been expected from “Everyday Robots.” Though it may previously have been muddled by his tendency to collaborate, Albarn’s aesthetic is now lucid, rooted in years of success and innovation. Of course, don’t become too attached to the sound. If Albarn’s career is any indication of the future, we’ll be hearing about a wildly different project any day now.
—Staff writer Ahmee Marshall-Christensen can be reached at email@example.com.