Damon Albarn is at his city sad ballad man best on his debut solo album. It's full of gorgeous melodies and melancholia but it can be hard to find the actual tunes.
From shoegaze to naval gaze and from virtual pop band to composing operas based on the Chinese pentatonic scale and beyond, Damon Albarn has always been one of pop’s most fascinating moving targets. A barrow boy one minute, a rude boy wannabe the next, and a champion of World Music (ghastly term) with none of the colonial smugness of Sting.
His debut solo album seems to be the natural culmination of all those fascinations and explorations - a sometimes autobiographical and nearly always melancholic set of songs that finds Albarn in a graceful and poised mood and also very wise in middle age.
He's always had substantial pop smarts but you always got the impression that the real Albarn was the one up on Melancholy Hill dreaming of Terry Hall and not the toothsome urchin from a Lionel Bart musical.
After being big and clever and arty, he reverts to the intimate, the quiet and the sometimes mournful on Everyday Robots. This is an overwhelming quiet, fragmentary affair full of small moments and heartfelt pathos and empathy.
Recurrent themes of urban alienation, the loneliness of the long distance commuter, and the ultimate failure of technology when faced with the power of actual human experience are touched on abstractly amid music that rejects the digitised world.
A ghost in the machine he may be but Albarn and producer Richard Russell have composed something very earthy and organic. Much of Everyday Robots at least sounds like a kind of coil-sprung, whirring contraption, squeaking out contrapuntal knocks and tics, found sounds and field recordings of voices, all babbling away at once. It’s like antique machinery rather than soulless keyboard punching. It has a lot in common with Blur's final album Think Tank.
However, it can be hard to find any memorable tunes amid the artful and carefully modulated mix. The best tracks here are the less impressionistic ones such as the folk-infused Hostiles, where Damon’s chin on chest ennui - “When your body aches from the unsolved dreams you keep” - is offset by a kind of fractured folk and another one of those gorgeous melodies that he seems to dream up with such ease.
The loping bassline of Lonely Press Play pulses underneath the rattle and tinkle of percussion and sparse piano, and even the playful rinky dinky Mr Tembo, which is about a baby elephant, is preferable to some of the more inscrutable moments here.
However, there is beauty everywhere. The lead song is suffused with a beatific melancholia with the hesitant verses revolving around a kind of arabesque as Albarn observes human automatons as they wind their way around the city, dazed and disconnected by routine just like the lonely worker bees in Blur song Yuko And Hiro.
The best tracks lurk among the more troubled moments - The Selfish Giant, a sad tale of lovers drifting apart in which Albarn intones "I had a dream you were leaving,", and The History of The Cheating Heart are both haunting and gorgeous songs full of surprising side roads.
The autobiographical Hollow Pond is full hazy recollection, a voyage into the past that begins in the heat wave of 1976 and passes through the changes wrought in Albarn’s childhood London neighbourhood, and the very moment he espied “modern life is rubbish” spray-painted on a wall in 1993, the words that, in many ways, gave Albarn the major theme of his life’s work.
Everything is kept at a languid, Soma-fied pace. It’s a blur of serene, blissed-out reverie with his default setting on melancholia. On Everyday Robots Albarn considers his own past without diving too deep. It is a Ye olde headphones album, a smoker’s delight with hidden gems sparkling amid the complex weaves and waves of the music.