“THE ONES THAT GOT AWAY” – A SHORT SERIES OF 2014 ALBUM REVIEWS THAT NEVER SAW THE LIGHT OF DAY, FOR SOME REASON.
AFTER THE DEBACLE of Blur’s eleventh hour snub of the Big Day Out, both promoter and audience may feel compelled to their own snub: that of Blur vocalist Damon Albarn’s solo album. In the rush to vilify the group’s leader, it has been suggested that the reformed band – who were said to have ended up in fisticuffs along the tour trail – was just a budgetary means to an end, a funding mechanism for Albarn’s album, Everyday Robots.
Who knows? While I feel sorry for all those who feel ripped off and slighted by Blur’s non-appearance here, it’s the reviewer’s imperative to ignore peripheral factors, and focus on the music, and Everyday Robots is simply the best thing Albarn has done to date, Blur included.
Apparently the singer never thought of making a solo album, or launching a solo career, in the wake of Blur’s hiatus, so instead worked in a variety of contexts: as the lynchpin of the hugely successful cartoon band Gorillaz, vocalist on the musically transgressive The Good, The Bad & The Queen, and as unlikely as it may seem, film soundtracks. It’s that wide-ranging soundtrack work especially, that informs Everyday Robots, the musical equivalent of Shayne Carter’s shearing off of all unnecessary Straitjacket Fits appendages for that killer first Dimmer album, I Believe You Are A Star.
While the best of Blur (captured mostly on Modern Life Is Rubbish and Parklife in the early ‘90s) teemed with the noisy jangle and whine of Britpop, Everyday Robots captures the very essence of Blur, the thing that made them matter: Albarn’s keen observational powers, and his ability to bless these vignettes with meaning.
So instead of clanging guitars and the bluster of crashing drums, Everyday Robots sports an exceptionally spare sound-picture, often allowing just his voice, piano, subtle orchestrations and dusted-off, lo-res samples (news broadcasts, miscellaneous sound effects) to puncture the silence. It’s not a pop record as we know it, but neither is it a tough listen, although Albarn’s life attitude – with its tendency towards the morose – may not gel with those seeking positive reinforcement.
Where Blur tended to observe societal ills, here he gets personal, and sometimes it’s like a diary. As the title suggests, the album explores the way contemporary technology, from gadgetry through to motorways, impact on daily life and personal relationships. On “The Selfish Giant”, he bemoans the lack of romance “when the TVs on and nothing’s in your eyes”, and on the piece de resistance that’s “You And Me”, he sounds close to hysteria when he intones: “Blame-me-me-blame-me-me-blame-me/All goes round again.”
It’s not all downcast, even when it is downcast. Things get a little lively on “Mr Tembo” (named after an orphaned baby elephant), which features the massed voices of the Leytonstone Pentecostal Mission Church Choir, and its robust, skewed nature makes it the closest to the concatenation of influences thrown into the Gorillaz project. And “Photographs”, in which he rhymes a line about “going to the Church Of John Coltrane” with “taking cocaine”, has got an uncharacteristically deep bass and percussion. Then there’s the almost sly, Leonard Cohen-style humour of “The History Of The Cheating Heart” and the grand finale, “The Heavy Seas Of Love”, a sing-along featuring electronic guru Brian Eno.
I’m glad I don’t have a vested interest in disliking Damon Albarn, because Everyday Robots deserves to be heard for what it is: a fine thing. GARY STEEL
Sound = 3.5/5
Music = 4/5
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