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Damon Albarn
Everyday Robots Alex Niven , April 29th, 2014 07:47

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Damon Albarn's first solo album – why, you wonder, has it taken him so long? – begins with a spoken-word sample of the 1950s American hip-semantic performer Lord Richard Buckley: 'They didn't know where they was going but they knew where they was wasn't it'. There are several ways of reading this fragment. Buckley, apparently, was alluding in his original performance to the travails of a little-known Spanish explorer called Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca. Meanwhile, true to dilettantish form, Albarn seems to have deployed Buckley's proto-rap here as oblique social commentary, a snatch of nonsense poetry recast as a vatic pronouncement on twenty-first-century identity crisis and technological burnout.

However, it is difficult in listening to Everyday Robots not to read the phrase as a commentary on Albarn himself. Ever since Modern Life Is Rubbish, Albarn has been obsessed with questions of place and belonging, often in a way that his detractors have found disingenuous (Parklife) if not outright heinous on grounds of cultural appropriation (2002's Mali Music). Perhaps this is a legacy of imperialism, but like many members of the English bourgeoisie, Albarn has seemed intent on donning all manner of bucolic guises and travelling (almost literally) to the ends of the earth in order to escape the fact that, at bottom, he is a child of suburban affluence and the easy social banality that springs from it (even if it's true that by the standards of post-Mumfords pop, Albarn's upbringing seems positively Dickensian).

Everyday Robots signals a sea change in Albarn's oeuvre because it is, ostensibly at least, a work that tackles its creator's origins with something close to sincerity. I say close to, because there are plenty of moments here when the familiar orientalism returns to produce slightly nauseating results. 'Mr Tembo', a song about a Tanzanian elephant (yes, really), is one of those jaunty half-parodies of someone else's folk music that helped to earn Albarn his "most slappable man in pop" title at the height of the Blur years.

Nearer to home, the portrayals of Albarn's childhood stamping ground of Leytonstone – in 'Hollow Ponds' and, more indirectly, in the use of the Leytonstone City Mission Choir on the otherwise fantastic 'Heavy Seas of Love' – have a similar air of ersatz rootsiness about them, which has been compounded by the slightly over-egged autobiographical publicity surrounding the album.

As a Leytonstone resident, I find Albarn's attempts to dramatise this quietly normative area on the faultline between Essex and East London to be a tad wilful. "Half my road was now a motorway", he sings on 'Hollow Ponds'. But I'm not so sure the construction of an A12 access lane through a small part of Fillebrook Road in the early-90s was quite the harrowing social cataclysm he would like it to be. Meanwhile, Hollow Ponds itself remains a likeably ordinary public space (as it presumably was back in 1976, "in the heat wave that hit us all"). Albarn's eulogies for these places can at times smack of self-embellishment and demographic caricature.

But at least, occasional hyperboles aside, there is a sense of genuine bathos about these depictions of the English quotidian, particularly in comparison with something like 'Parklife'. Even more winningly, the themes of quiet melancholia here are freighted on a sonic backdrop that is cinematic and ethereal rather than campy and ironic. Blur were always at their worst when indulging in their taste for the latter, while 'For Tomorrow', 'The Universal', and 'Out of Time' showed the potential of the former to highlight Albarn's considerable talents as a melodic songwriter. In the best moments on Everyday Robots – 'Hostiles', 'Lonely Press Play', 'You and Me', 'Heavy Seas of Love', the title track – Albarn creates gorgeous melodic textures that are sui generis in British pop music. If only he would ditch the self-mythologising and concentrate on being the brilliant formal engineer he so clearly is, he would be infinitely more likeable.

Apr 29, 2014 12:48pm

Sounds like 'I don't really like Damon Albarn as a person, so this is gonna have to be some startling, mindblowing shit for me to give it even half a chance'

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Andy K
Apr 29, 2014 1:05pm

In reply to :

'this is gonna have to be some startling, mindblowing shit for me to give it even half a chance'

sounds like a good benchmark for any work of art, to be honest

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Apr 29, 2014 1:51pm

you and me is incredibly good.

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Michael E.
Apr 29, 2014 2:03pm

Maybe , he has given too many interviews telling quite often the same things in certain variations. But that's normal, if you're asked more or less the same things. I don't see any big "self-mythologising" here on this album. The past is fragmented, not handled with big stories. Hollow Pond is one several fantastic songs, listen to the instrumental climax at the end of the track: gorgeous.

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Frankeeee Gallagher
Apr 29, 2014 2:09pm

I agree with Bob - the second half of You and Me is absolutely mint

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Apr 29, 2014 2:43pm

Andy K, if that's your benchmark for art in general then you must like, what, about three things tops

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Apr 29, 2014 7:14pm

I own no music from this man - no Blur, no Gorillaz, no The Good the Bad and the Queen (or however many other projects he's been). Haven't heard this album, doubt i'll seek it out. Just a question tho, it has been what, 20+ years since Blur made their debut? Ya'll ever gonna get over the fact that he's not, nor ever was, working class? Since he doesn't appear to be slowing down, here's hoping he continues on recording into his 60s so I can read a few more f*cking times about his affluent upbringing.

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Apr 29, 2014 8:20pm

Did Damon Albarn sleep with someone at theQuietus' girlfriend this week?

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Apr 29, 2014 8:22pm

All the negative Damon Albarn reviews I have read during the last 20 years go like this. Oh he is arrogant, oh he is not working class, what a smart-ass prick. Oh the music? Yes it is brilliant, he can piss melody , now let's talk about his arrogance again. Ok, people have to say something and since they can't say much about his songs, fair enough.

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Apr 30, 2014 6:25am

Oh dear. I've read reviews in the NME that were less biased against the person than this. Is there anyone else at The Quietus who could give us a review, perhaps someone who doesn't need to tell us they live in Leytonstone?

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Apr 30, 2014 12:23pm

Never been that into Blur or any of Albarns other stuff but this is a great little record, full of beautiful quiet moments

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Apr 30, 2014 3:03pm

What a villain - how dare he befriend Malian musicians and record with them, release it in a very low-key manner, and introduce people to music he loves and that they may be unfamiliar with. What a cunt. He's almost as bad as all those Africans that appropriated Western funk and rock and made some of the best music of the 70s.

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May 1, 2014 1:37pm

Slight exaggeration to call Mali Music "heinous". Not all that good maybe but not evil in any way....

And what's this obsession with middle class, sorry the 'bourgeoisie'? (not a very working class expression Mr Niven, if you're scoring inverse snobbery / authenticity points simply by not being middle class yourself, which you seem to be trying to do).

And as for the legacy of imperialism that can apparently be heard in Albarn's music, that theory might have sounded good down the pub last night but doesn't hold water in the cold light of day. Who under 70 can even remember The British Empire?

Final point or two - I expect the construction of the A12 motorway right through the middle of Leytonstone was a fairly big deal at the time.

Oh, and I think the music is pretty good.

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May 1, 2014 10:07pm

In reply to :

There's a whole para on his trying-to-be-evocative lyrics being clumsy and weak, which is true. What more do you want? Personally his voice always annoyed me too.

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May 4, 2014 8:27am

"The class system just doesn't know when to call it a day. Even a nuclear holocaust, I think, would fail to make much of a dent in it. Crawling through the iodized shithouse that used to be England, people would still be brooding about accents and cocked pinkies, about maiden names and settee or sofa, about the proper way to eat a roach in society." (And Damon Albarn's upbringing, apparently.)

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M Peacock
May 4, 2014 7:05pm

"Cultural appropriation." What is the meaning of this often-repeated, never-explicated accusation? Are artists and humans in general evil for developing an interest in styles and cultures outside whichever one they were brought up in? Why are curiosity and imaginative engagement "heinous" and "nauseating?"

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Darren Lamb
May 6, 2014 12:25am

Just wanted to echo some of the comments and say this was one of the most disappointing reviews I've read on this site. Who the fuck cares about your post codes?

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Jan 3, 2015 10:11pm

I am a person with eclectic music interests who has been a huge fan of almost everything Damon Albarn has produced. As an Australian, I have never really understood the weird regional disputes that showed up in things such as the media frenzy re blur vs oasis (I dig oasis too), and the unusual media hostility towards Albarn's place in the scheme of things. The accusations of artificiality are laughable when there is so much utter crap out there. Albarn draws criticism perhaps becuse he is an outsider who became successful, marrying pop genius with an experimental sensibility. I suspect the critism is political. I personally find his work to be multi-dimensionally diverse whilst retaining his signature. Its effortlessly intricate stuff. He has a dry humour I see in a lot of British comedy, but seems lacking in reviews like the above sermon. His collaborations are mutual celebrations, not appropriations in the least. Sampling is infrequent and annotated on album sleeves. Yes as an aussie the commentaries on Englishness are a step removed from my reality. However, humanity is humanity. Arseholes are born everywhere and in every strata of society. So are people of great insight and creativity. I cant understand why so many English critics want to pan one of their greatest. Dont worry it happens in Oz too. Brilliant older bands with an alternative bent such as The Church and You Am I are under rated. INXS and ACDC are great, but there is far more to Australian music, much of which never broke through to the mainstream probably because of lame music reviewers.

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