Since Blur’s commercial high / critical low Country House, Damon Albarn has preferred gravitas to gurning. The “Woo-hoo!” in 'Song 2' was countered by multiple teary ballads such as 'Beetlebum', and for every Gorillaz album in his post-Blur world, there’s a string of downbeat affairs – even the African sojourn with Mali Music, his Elizabethan opera Dr Dee and supergroup The Good, the Bad & the Queen were downers. If it’s no surprise that the first album bearing Albarn’s name is melancholic, it is shocking just how much lower than Blur’s 'This is a Low' it gets.
Maybe it’s just a musical language. Everyday Robots is an exquisite record, all muted colours, acres of space and clinking, clanking percussion, like a hip-folk-hop relative of Robert Wyatt’s 'Shipbuilding'. For what has Albarn got to be so mournful about? Blur ballads tackled the heroin-tainted break-up with Justine Frischmann (Elastica), but he’s since settled down, started a family and enjoyed an almost unfair number of critical highs.
His solo album’s key themes are childhood memories and nature versus technology, but its tone is resigned, not reflective. And has there ever been a more doleful-sounding steel band than on 'You and Me'? Has witnessing mass African poverty first hand, amid endless news of civil war, forced Albarn to view life as disconnection and a series of lost opportunities?
For all its beauty, the album can verge on sounding samey, but two interludes – both lent gospel goodness by Leytonstone’s Pentecostal City Mission Church choir – dispel the heavy clouds. 'Mr Tembo', an ode to a Tanzanian baby elephant, is borderline jolly; meanwhile, ambient maestro Brian Eno pops up to pep up 'Heavy Seas of Love', the album’s sole stab at hope.
Still, he’s fooling no one. Vocal guest, Bat for Lashes’ Natasha Khan, resembles a ghost behind Albarn’s lament, “It’s hard to be a lover when the TV’s on,” in 'The Selfish Giant'”. Look at his body language on the cover. Solitary and downcast, he’s practically saying: modern life isn’t only rubbish, it’s really sad.
Everyday Robots (Parlohone) is out today.
Taken from Esquire's May issue, on newsstands now.