Release Date: April 29, 2014
As most folks know, SXSW is more about brands than bands; it has been for over a decade. To wit: For 10-plus years now, there’s one brand that throws this enormously expensive five-day party, from noon to 8 p.m. every day. Cover is free and the line-up is so consistently amazing the place takes on a kind of Pinocchio’s Pleasure Island vibe, where it’s hard to leave even as you feel shittier the longer you stay. This year, Blur frontman and Gorillaz mastermind Damon Albarn was headlining the Friday evening slot. So picture this: It’s 7:30 p.m., magic-hour in Austin, the free beer is flowing, and one of the most fascinating musicians of the last 30 years is performing new material in an intimate setting. Also: I’m a huge Blur fan (the pneumonic device I use to remember my ATM pin-code is a Blur reference). So again: free show, free beer, small crowd, living legend onstage. What do I do? I leave halfway through the set — it was that boring.
Now, I stand by this decision, because the songs Albarn was performing, from his new album Everyday Robots, are befuddling to say the least: plodding, melancholy, droll. They’re not the kind of tunes you want to play for a rowdy crowd that just watched Young Thug. They’re weird; they’re personal; they’re probably some of his best songs ever. That’s right, slight reversal there. I’m here to convince you — as I myself am now convinced — that this is some of Albarn’s finest work. But, much like the time that’s elapsed between that March night in Austin and the past week I’ve spent with this record, it’s gonna take us a minute to get there.
The issue that night was one of expectations: I was expecting fireworks and I got scented candles. How could you blame me? Albarn’s been quietly leading a revolution in pop spectacle since Day One. As the leader of Blur, he was critiquing technology and consumer culture long before Thom Yorke got the itch, let alone Dave Eggers and Mike Judge. “Popscene,” “Girls and Boys,” “Parklife,” “This Is a Low,” “Entertain Me,” “The Universal,” “Song 2,” “Tender”: The level of stylistic voracity exhibited by that band makes Diplo look like Nickelback. And that’s just Blur. For Albarn’s next trick, of course, he helmed Gorillaz, a super-group disguised as cartoons that flung its poo at mainstream pop in the form of genre-exploding hit singles. Albarn’s mastery of pop stagecraft should frankly be embarrassing to folks like Lady Gaga and Kanye, who go out of their way to make it seem like they’re building the goddamn pyramids — Albarn just kinda knocks this stuff out in an afternoon1.
Hence my hopes/dreams/fears for his solo album: Would Lil Wayne appear on it? How about the cast of Star Wars? Would it feature the exhumed corpse of Joe Strummer? Alas, no. But then — no! Everyday Robots has none of these things! It is, in fact, the inverse of nearly all of Albarn’s previous work: immediate, restrained, even downright painful in parts. Albarn’s not exactly old, but he’s aging — you feel that on Everyday Robots. Whereas records like Parklife and Demon Days were like ostentatious theme parks, brimming with ideas, Robots is a snow globe, a diorama, the contents of Albarn’s head arranged with fastidious precision: one man’s life at 46.
The songs are quiet and understated: They sidle and slink, ebb and flow. The rhythms are tidal and the lyrics can be, too (“Ship on the hollow ponds / Set sail by a kid,” Albarn sings of his childhood). This is a genre of his own — mellow beats, light pianos, restrained guitars, kazoos2 — the one heard on Blur songs like “Blue Jeans” and “He Thought of Cars.” Call it dub-folk (or don’t)3. Atop these lightly instrumented tracks we find Albarn singing in that whimsical mid-range of his, as if he were reading to a group of children during story-hour. Succinctly capturing this vibe is “Parakeet,” a 45-second instrumental that evokes the whimsical spirit of its titular bird. Robots is simple that way: It appreciates the little things.
But this is serious music. Albarn has stated that this is his most personal record and he ain’t kidding: “Hollow Ponds” is bleak, the rough equivalent to sitting next to a drunk at a bar as he tells his life story in semi-coherent fragments: “Modern Life was sprayed onto a wall/ In Nineteen Ninety Three,” croons the former Britpop poster boy, abetted by moaning back-up vocals and a doleful horn solo. “You & Me” is similarly somber. Its seven minutes feel like 15, the instruments so spaced apart you could drive a Citroën through ’em. “What language was I speaking?,” Albarn sings. “Not sure I can remember.” This is a low: “History of a Cheating Heart.” It’s exactly what the title says: Albarn explaining his cheatin’ ways with the kind of compassionate fatalism that arrives once a man starts getting regular prostate exams.
Am I not selling it? I’m trying to. There’s a tremendous amount of plain old, gut-wrenching pathos here, bracing and intoxicating like good Tom Waits and great aged scotch. That this solemnity is intercut with signature Albarn moments of capricious tomfoolery gives the record a deliciously sweet and sour vibe. “Mr Tembo” initially sounds like yet another of Albarn’s castigations of British stiff upper-lip culture (see: “Tracy Jacks,” “Country House,” etc.), but it turns out “Tembo” is Swahili for “elephant.” The song is about a baby elephant that Albarn met while visiting Tanzania, and he wrote it for his daughter, and even if you didn’t know any of this, the tune is so jaunty and endearing it steals your heart.
The most distracting things on Everyday Robots are Albarn’s ham-fisted lines about the trappings of all mod cons (as distinct from All Mod Cons, a perennial influence), but since he’s been doing this stuff since the early ’90s you kind of have to cut him some slack: “We’re everyday robots on our phones”; we’re “Swimming in a status sea”; “When you’re lonely press play.” Such observations and admonishments are fine — if a bit hackneyed — at this particular moment in 2014 (even for you, EMA), though they combine with all the soul-searching Albarn’s doing elsewhere to create the album’s pal of mournful resignation.
And that’s the taste left in your mouth by the time you get to the Brian Eno-assisted “Heavy Seas of Love,” a tune that feels like dessert, a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down. “Heavy seas of love / Radiance is in you,” Albarn sings, as a chorus echoes him on the kind of song you’d hear wafting out of a Southern Baptist church on a Sunday morning. Surely the idea here is to reassure the listener — and perhaps more importantly the guy writing the songs — that All Is Not Lost, that you might be on a little boat in rough water, beset by technology and mortified by middle age, but with the right mix of luck and fortitude, you may just find your way back to dry land. Maybe if Albarn had opened with “Heavy Seas” that Friday evening in Austin, I might have stuck around. Doesn’t matter now: I’m on board.
1. He’s even said in recent interviews that he works a steady 10 to 5 day, which supports a theory I have that us Americans are obsessed with making it seem like we work really hard, even if most of that “work” is just checking Twitter.↩
2. Actually not kazoos literally, but rather a wonder-emporium’s worth of plinks, plunks and other unidentifiable whatzits.↩
3. Of all his other work, Everyday Robots most resembles the self-titled record from Albarn’s short-lived supergroup The Good The Bad and the Queen↩