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

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.