Upon receiving his special NME Award for Innovation in February, Damon Albarn spoke of the ‘world before the internet’ which existed at Blur’s inception. How times have changed technologically since the first of his countless musical ventures, a fact he recognises in the opening lyric of the record’s eponymous first track: ‘We are everyday robots on our phones’. These are the overwhelmingly true words of a man ever aware of a constantly shifting society.
Cross woven with a multitude of stringed instruments and sampled quotations from mid-20th Century American comic Lord Buckley, the album opener sets us up well for what ensues. ‘Everyday Robots’ is largely what you’d expect from Albarn: melancholy, tender and intriguing, if a little short on surprises.
There is evidence aplenty of him delving into his past to fuel his solo debut, but none more so than on the majestic ‘Hollow Ponds’. As he croons out lines such as ‘Half my road was now a motorway, 1991’ and ‘Modern life was sprayed onto a wall in 1993’, it would be easy to interpret this song as a proud ode to his laudable career. It’s not quite that; he references the lows as well as the highs, and even his recollections of his musical glories are tinged with wistfulness.
Yet for as much as he seems to yearn for his long-gone beginnings, he uses his more recent works to good effect. The uplifting ‘Mr Tembo’ has been heavily influenced by numerous trips to Africa down the years. Written about – of all things – an orphaned elephant Albarn encountered in a Tanzanian zoo, its instrumentals appear inspired by his Africa Express project, which saw him spend time in Mali with Brian Eno and members of Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Metronomy and Django Django.
Indeed, Eno has lent his hand to ‘Everyday Robots’ with his guest vocals on ‘Heavy Seas Of Love’, the album finale which certainly isn’t in keeping with the bulk of what has come before it. With its Eno-sung introduction and verses that are strangely reminiscent of The Monkees’ ‘Daydream Believer’, and Damon’s sparkling choral duet with the Leytonstone City Mission Choir, it exhibits an eclectic mix of elements to say the least. Should we really be surprised?
Truth be told, it’s a shame that this landmark LP produces no clear standout moment. Yet, as with the most part of Damon Albarn’s incomparable discography, there’s a commendable sense of togetherness that keeps you utterly bewitched.
It would perhaps be easier to extract the anomalies. Track five ‘Parakeet’ is merely a brief sound bite of artificially recreated chirping, whilst the piano-dominated ‘Seven High’ feels like little more than 60 seconds of filler. Limited though they may be, these unfortunate blips trip the album up in its quest for perfection.
No one could ever accuse Damon Albarn of running out of ideas, but maybe the way of the solo artist is somewhat uncharted territory even for a man as musically well-travelled as he. ‘Everyday Robots’ may not be the masterpiece many were quite justifiably expecting, but it has plenty to suggest that we are entering yet another compelling phase in the career of one of music’s great innovators.