Despite fronting one of the most innovative and consistent pop machines of the last 20 years and being the musical mastermind behind an anti-commercial art experiment turned genre blending hit generator, Damon Albarn’s first solo album was not one of the releases I had high expectations for at the start of 2014. Ironically, it was other elements of its context that put me off, such as the fact that he was headlining festivals on the back of his fame despite having released none of his material (a personal gripe of mine), or the long list of collaborations which lead me to believe it would be another Gorillaz album in disguise. But ignore the context, ignore its place amongst his previous work and it being fated “the album where Damon finally bares his soul”. ‘Everyday Robots’ is a brilliant piece of work outside of all of that and is one that revels in defying expectation.
When I envisage an album with a title as heart-on-sleeve as ‘Everyday Robots’, I imagine a snotty punk band, sneering lyrics about a mass produced generation and a soulless culture. Instead, I am presented with a picture of a middle aged man sat on a stool somewhere in non-space; not mopping, but not smiling either. This perfectly captures the mood of the album- lyrics which portray cultural and personal alienation as a beautiful part of the human condition against a backdrop of organic instrumentation interwoven with samples and rhythms which echo artificiality. Certainly, this is not the pop romp one may expect from a Blur or Gorillaz album and the cohesive structure and mood of the songs could be mistaken for sameness. However, my reply to both of these accusations would be that the joy of this album is in the detail; everything has its purpose.
Take the Richard Buckley sample which begins the title track which, although goofy, somewhat sums up the album’s themes; “we didn’t know where we was going, but we knew where we was…”. Instead of being followed by raucous laughter there is an awkward chuckle, which sets the tone before the icy, physco-esque strings begin the track’s melancholy, clockwork rumble. This is one of many colours that bleeds through the initial grey, as it’s unlikely anyone could notice everything that’s going on without multiple listens.
Strip this back and the songs are almost all simple melodies and structures, primarily using piano and acoustic guitar. But if there’s anywhere the layers of production shine, it’s in the beats and the vocal harmonies. There is not a single simple drum pattern amongst the pot, pan clatter behind ‘Lonely Press Play’ and metal-against-tarmac scrape on ‘Hostiles’ and, more than the strings on tracks like ‘History of a Cheating Heart’ or cooing clarinet on ‘The Selfish Giant’, it’s the backing vocals that lift these songs to new heights.
If there’s two areas where this album could alienate, it’s the cutesy, ukele driven ‘Mr Tembo’ and the (may as well be) three song gloomy epic, ‘You and Me’ and ‘Hollow Ponds’. The former reminds me in many ways of ‘Yellow Submarine’ from being a light-hearted spot on an album that takes itself seriously, to the strange sample halfway through, whilst the latter clocks in at 10 minutes without a dramatic change of tone, tempo or melody. However, the fact that these moments are so dichotomised shows how much variety there is in an album that could seem, at first, samey. Furthermore, the short instrumentals that proceed each are perfect full stops, matching their moods and integrating them into the flow, not to mention that the refrain in the second part of ‘You and Me’ is my highlight of the album.
There is little point to laying out the highlights however, as there are so many smaller details here, each fan will have a different favourite; the whisper at the end of ‘Press Play’, the way the heart-beat bass drum speeds up into ‘Mr Tembo, the steel drum between the two movements of ‘You And Me’. As well as being a brilliant collection of songs, ‘Everyday Robots’ is a series of moments which add up to more than a message about modern life, or fragments of Damon’s past, or a culmination of his song writing styles and experimentation with different genres. This album works best in its own context. If there is one message to take from it, it’s to avoid distractions.
Words: Rob Paterson