The Blur frontman's excellent solo debut shows us a bit more of the real him - but you have to work hard to find it
We’ve had his state of the nation addresses, both pre-millennial and post-. We’ve had his fantasies of cartoon musicians on islands made of trash. We’ve had his operatic renderings of old Japanese children’s programmes from the 1980s. We’ve had his mumbled demos and African jams. But, beyond a few moments when the heartbreak broke through, we’ve learnt more from his music about Damon Albarn’s thoughts on 17th-century alchemy, suburban cross-dressers and really fast jellyfish than we have about, well, Damon Albarn. He’s arguably the foremost creative innovator of our times and very outspoken with it, yet he’s remained, post-Blur, if not an enigma then at least opaque, hiding behind cartoons, shrouded with collaborators, distanced by storytelling.
Now here, we’re promised, is the big reveal. Adorned with a stark solo shot of Albarn slouched dejectedly on a stool and accompanied by a video for the title track that features actual Albarn brain scans as if trying to get so far behind the mask you could actually watch the songs being thought of, Damon’s debut solo album ‘Everyday Robots’ is touted as Autobiographical Albarn at his most honest and exposed. So what do we learn? First, that the natural base sound in Albarn’s head is a downbeat, piano-led soulful trip-hop not too far from the work he and XL’s Richard Russell did on Bobby Womack’s ‘The Bravest Man In The Universe’ album in 2012; a result, perhaps, of Russell producing here too. And secondly, that Albarn doesn’t splay open his soul easily.
“‘Modern Life…’ was sprayed onto a wall in 1993,” he croons in ‘Hollow Ponds’, a song named after a childhood haunt, and there the un-cryptic sign-posting ends. For the rest of the record Albarn hints and nudges at personal revelations, dropping in references to his past such as having a Pentecostal choir from Leytonstone, where he grew up, bawling along to perky Chilean folk gospel ‘Mr Tembo’ – a song, somewhat bafflingly, about a wandering Tanzanian elephant. Some truths take a little unravelling: a character “digging out a hole in Westbourne Grove/Tin foil and a lighter, the ship across/Five days on and two days off” in the Eno-abetted ‘You And Me’ is clearly Albarn himself during his self-proclaimed “productive” heroin days and ‘Hollow Ponds’ is a series of time-jumping snapshots from his life opening with a child setting a toy ship adrift on a pond in the heatwave summer of 1976 – a thinly-veiled metaphor for his own fragile psyche cast onto the shallow waters of indie rock. “Half my road became a motorway in 1991”, he mutters with a wistfulness that suggests it’s taken 23 years for the dizzying Blur rush to swim into focus.
Otherwise, we’re left with a general air of a life drifted quietly, but not unpleasantly, out of control. Besides ‘You And Me’’s smack revelations, the brilliant ‘The Selfish Giant’, featuring guest whispers from Natasha Khan, is a sumptuous glitch-jazz ballad about a relationship suffocated by TV and unadventurous coitus. ‘Lonely Press Play’ paints a forlorn picture of Albarn finding solace in music in his bleaker moments and ‘Hostiles’, essentially a trip-hop Trumpton theme, is an artful paean to 21st-century social ill-communication that was made to soundtrack an anti-troll campaign.
To cloud his portrait further, Damon throws in parables for the soulless technological age on ‘Photographs (You Are Taking Now)’ and the title track, a tale of mobile phone myopia that Nexus would sync at their peril – “they didn’t know where they was going but they knew where they was wasn’t it,” a sample of American comedian Lord Buckley says of humanity swiped astray. But the seductive music, with its Bon Iver found-sound creaks and crackles of static, its colliery laments (‘The History Of A Cheating Heart’), its gothic calypsos (the second half of ‘You And Me’) and its full-on Magnetic Fields alt-showtunes (‘Heavy Seas Of Love’) invite intimacy and the slow picking away of its layers. Albarn pulls you close and whispers the codes of his life into your ear. Switch settings to ‘decipher’.