The last time I saw Damon Albarn, he was jumping on Faris Badwan's back in the photo room at the NME Awards, a rowdy bit of XL bonhomie that's some distance from the soft-shoe sorrow of his first solo album. I say "first" – there was 'Democrazy' (an EP, but over several sides of inconveniently sized vinyl), Journey To The West','Dr Dee', any number of Gorillaz albums – all of these have claims to be "solo" in some way, but 'Everyday Robots', from its billing to its apparently confessional themes, is the real McCoy. Produced by his label boss and former hardcore rave nutter Richard Russell, it's a sometimes delicate but always compelling record that seems to peer into the Albarn psyche, and it goes a little something like this.
The title track wheezes along, squeaking like a rocking chair – these robots need winding up. It's a sweet, mournful melody, stark in its appraisal of all of us as "everyday robots on our phones/In the process of getting home". We're "out there on our own... in control/Or in the process of being so... getting old," and at this stage Albarn's not offering many shafts of light. It's as subdued an album opener as you're likely to hear and there are no euphoric techno bug-outs around the corner.
The album's closest cousin is The Good, The Bad And The Queen project, low on pace, high on haunting tunes – and possibly the memory of something else, but we'll come to that. There's a sense of overdoing it on 'Hostiles'. The "body aches", the "hostiles with whom we collude" feel like life's temptations, there to be fought off. At brass tacks level, it's another ballad but also another gripping production, with a shifting concrete beat and an angelic chorus running through like a shining thread.
Lonely Press Play
And don't get the glow sticks out quite yet, even though there's a brighter dubby flow, prettified by tinkling bells and mysterious synth meanders that owe something to The Specials' 'Ghost Town'. Jazzy piano affects a devil-may-care atmosphere, but the lyric feels honest and open: "You're not resolved in your heart/You're waiting for me... to improve". It's a gorgeous song and unbearably tender when Albarn whispers the final "...to improve" at the close.
It takes a song about a baby elephant to inject a spring into the album's step, despite Mr. Tembo needing a "helping hand" to get up the hill. At times, 'Mr. Tembo''s African guitar bounce is so jaunty it feels as if it could launch into 'Upside Down', surf-bum folkie Jack Johnson's deathless theme to the venerated movie adaptation of Curious George. Lazy horns and a joyous choir take it somewhere a little more meaty.
The intro veers dangerously close to Kate Nash's 'Foundations', but stick with 'Parakeet' for its full 40-odd seconds because the electronic beats, glockenspiel trills and warm piano make a boho-pop that sounds like the kind of thing Johnny Borrell's light years away from making with Zazou.
The Selfish Giant
"Celebrate the passing drugs/Put 'em on the backseat while they're coursing through your blood" – yes, 'The Selfish Giant' is about a nuclear submarine. Well, that's hard to get a grip on ("Waiting for the final call that's coming down the line," maybe?), but what 'The Selfish Giant' really sounds like is a refined goodbye over dub bass and piping organ, drifting into a chorus that's devastating in its ordinary heartbreak: "I had a dream you were leaving/It's hard to be a lover when the TV's on/And nothing's in your eyes". The sort of thing you hope isn't autobiographical.
You And Me
Call it the fulcrum of the record. 'You And Me' is an elusive epic that, like other songs to come, seems to pick over Albarn's life and manor with shouts to All Saints Road and Westbourne Grove. "Jab, jab/Digging out a hole in Westbourne Grove/Tinfoil and a lighter/The ship across/Five days on and two days off" – he's probably not giving us details of his miracle diet. This is Albarn reliving 'My Heroin not-quite Hell; it was actually a rather creative period, now you ask'. As the song switches from yet another raw, lovely ballad to an unspeakably great coda ("You can blame me, blame me, blame me...) you're struck by the man's rare undiminished gifts and how it's really not fair.
One for the Blur fans perhaps – "Modern life was sprayed onto a wall in 1993" – but 'Hollow Ponds' is broader than that, building from witchy Radiohead acoustic guitar to a grand peak with a glum trumpet solo and taking in the drought of 1976 and the 21st century "dreams we share on LCDs". That's a call back to 'Everyday Robots', the dehumanising effects of technology, and the song itself finally resolves into a drone and eerie electronic excursion.
Speaking of reliving your past, buried deep in this one is a busy little snatch of fanfare that sounds like the old Pearl & Dean theme. You had to be there, I guess. Elsewhere, piano taunts like a nursery rhyme and it's all over too soon.
Photographs (You Are Taking Now)
"This is a precious opportunity," declares a TV voice before resounding bass with almost techno depth takes us from the "patent courts of nature" to "the church of John Coltrane". A fairly circuitous route, sure, that sees time pass from the taking to the taking down of photographs. But the melancholy starts to give way to John Barry-esque strings – and suddenly our hero's sipping Martinis in a tux. More of an Alex James image, really.
The History Of A Cheating Heart
Albarn's always been more of a Lennon – from 'Beetlebum' to 'Out Of Time', a bit Plastic Ono – but 'The History Of A Cheating Heart' has a spine-shivering hook and rising strings that are pure McCartney. "More than you know…" Otherwise there's a whisper of Nick Drake there on yet another atmospheric, intimate ballad that appears to give away more than it does; you can't be sure that you've got under Albarn's skin but it feels as close as you'll ever get.
Heavy Seas Of Love
And it all ends with a big, skewed pop song as Brian Eno joins Albarn for fruity, comforting harmonies – "When your soul isn't right/And it's raw to the night… You're in safe hands" – that stick in your head like the verses to Michael Jackson's 'Heal The World'. Because they sound like the verses to Michael Jackson's 'Heal The World'. There's a crunchy chorus too, that'll have them singing along at Glastonbury's Park Stage on a twilit Saturday evening. Probably.