Damon Albarn has traditionally addressed life in the third person. With material like Girls & Boys (a ribald disco number about mating rituals on package holidays), For Tomorrow (an urban romance) or Tracy Jacks (the tragedy of a misunderstood commuter), his best-known songs for Blur established him as gifted not only with melody but also with social satire and character. His songs take a place in a tradition of British vernacular composition that stretches from music hall, through to The Kinks, all the way to the Arctic Monkeys.
Which is not to imply Albarn has never worn his heart on his sleeve. Blur’s 1999 album 13 was written after the demise of his long-term relationship with Elastica’s Justine Frischmann, and grieved for it openly. Bookended by such yearning and accomplished ballads as Tender and No Distance Left to Run, elsewhere in the album, autobiographical songs such as 1992 and Battle delivered an expertly managed musical chaos that enacted the emotional drama within them. Listening to the album is like watching someone trying to put a brave face on things, only for the mask to slip.
Everyday Robots, the first "proper" Damon Albarn solo album (alongside his many pseudonymous works with West African musicians there have been a scattershot solo collection, Democrazy, from 2003 and a cross-genre work from 2012, Dr Dee) has been billed as just such a personal record. Far from being a chaotic affair, though, the album has been heralded by pre-publicity that has methodically outlined its intentions.
A single, Lonely Press Play, with footage shot by the singer on his iPad in locations significant to him, has introduced the themes of personal history, memory and technology that are wired into the album (it also includes references to LCDs, pressing send and restart). With a BBC film and a series of subtly confessional interviews, meanwhile, he has introduced the wider concerns of the album. This, he has explained, has been a journey through emotional geography, a stock-take in midlife of his story so far. To make the album, Damon Albarn has, in effect, gone on the road and researched himself.
What he has uncovered has been surprising. The headline news: in the past there has been hard drug use – long rumoured but never previously confirmed. More striking, however, has been the revelation that this gregarious and good-looking artist – the principal architect of the laddish 1990s Britpop movement – has often felt vulnerable.
Albarn spent his formative years in Leytonstone, East London, with its gospel choirs and boating lake, the Hollow Ponds. When his parents moved, he was transplanted to villagey, predominantly white Essex. The place helped inspire 1994’s Parklife, Blur’s hugely successful sideways glance at British culture. Everyday Robots, Albarn has explained, explores the uneasy transition.
Strangely, then, Everyday Robots doesn’t begin with a personal song at all – but in fact with the kind of observational piece that we might once have thought characteristic of Blur. The title track introduces us to the electronic/acoustic soundworld he has devised for the album with producer Richard Russell, and also reacquaints us with some familiar archetypes: the British commuter travelling home to his pleasant suburban residence, by car, communicating on his phone.
Rather than punchlines in a vignette, however, now these lives are drawn with more empathy and take their place in the album’s more melancholic journey: the travellers are like “standing stones” and while they may attempt a reboot of their lives, theirs is the inexorable journey to the grave. What has changed for Damon Albarn is that he no longer excludes himself from the itinerary. He knows he’s going the same way.
This weighing of the technological and the philosophical is one of the album’s defining features. On Photographs (You Are Taking Now), a sample of the psychedelic guru Dr Timothy Leary counsels caution when looking at photographs and it’s a notion that Albarn expands on. With the recording facilities we have at our disposal, it is possible to view life as an infinitely long series of frozen moments, each taking their place in a documentary-style funeral procession. Or you might choose to see it as a few spectacular moments, transformed by memory.
With its evocative poetry (“Flying over black sands/In a glass aeroplane…”), and its allusions to the touring life (“Eight hours on a bus from Sunset/Freedom, taking cocaine”) Photographs leaves you in no doubt about which side Albarn comes down on. In these moments, he seems to be posing a question of taste. Would you prefer a paparazzo’s take on an unguarded moment, or an artist’s? Would you prefer the glaring light of a confessional, or an ambiguity that allows something more interesting to suggest itself in the shade?
Or perhaps you’d like a song about a baby elephant. Mr Tembo, a jaunty ukulele song about an elephant Albarn saw in a Tanzanian zoo, may be as divisive a composition for him as Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da was for Paul McCartney – as jaunty songs about baby elephants will tend to be. However, out of his empathy with another displaced creature, Albarn creates something very special: including a well-judged rap (“Domes, satellites, football pitches/Faded flags and lots of dogs…”). On the surface, the song (and the cheeky interlude Parakeet, which follows) appear out-of-sync with the introspective mood cast elsewhere. In transforming private moments, however, they’re very much of a kind.
Having impressed with its intelligence and good nature, Everyday Robots then proceeds to confide its dark secrets. Well, kind of. True enough, here are places you can find on any map of London, and occasionally there are activities which would earn the outrage of a tabloid newspaper. But this is also a transformed, magical London: peopled by strange spirits on stilts, and the ghosts of forgotten drums. On it shines a strange post-nuclear sun, which seems to pour itself into the inhabitants.
The Selfish Giant begins the album’s confessional strand. With its modal piano and crunching beats, it’s reminiscent of a hip-hop piece by the Wu-Tang Clan. In fact, it’s a domestic tableau: in which the realities of a long relationship become self-evident (“It’s hard to be a lover when the TV’s on…”) but retain a magical quality. More even than the anthemic gospel album closer Heavy Seas Of Love, it feels personal but also universal, both romantic and consoling.
For You and Me, a synth pattern provided by Brian Eno provides our gentle, cushioned descent into darkness, as Albarn addresses his mid-1990s drug use: “Jab jab/Digging out a hole in Westbourne Grove/Tin foil and a lighter/The ship across…” The song is split in half by a steel-drum peal, and on the other side, we find something quite different: a modern folk song with R&B instrumentation. “Some days I look at the morning,” Albarn sings, his voice a cold shower of clarity, “and wonder how I got here.” It peacefully dispels the opiated fug which has gone before and it also demonstrates Albarn’s great technical achievement on the album: to be the subject of the songs, while also pulling back to be their object. For all the song’s admissions, Albarn still controls it from a safe distance. He has in effect, become a character in his own song.
Hollow Ponds, which follows, shows how adept he is at controlling the mood. Here, a visit to an East London lake provides a springboard for other important memories. These might be inclusive collective memories: “The heatwave which hit us all … in 1976”. Or they might be quite specifically his: the start of his success with Blur (“Modern Life was written on a wall … in 1993”) or starting a new school in Essex: “Spiny urchins and a new school bell/In 1979…”.
In each of the recollections, Albarn is remembering himself on the verge of something and that’s the album’s dominant mood. It’s about being on the outside looking in, as you are when you move to a new school. Or, come to that, as we all are when we examine our past. Even if we recognise ourselves, we’re not the same people we were in our old photos. Memory has performed its editing process, removing some components and expanding others. We’re neither here nor there.
Better than simply a personal or a confessional album, Everyday Robots moves the game on and investigates its own processes, getting gently philosophical on the way. It’s candid in places you least expect it and cleverly keeps its counsel in others. Above all, this isn’t an album about observing “them” and nor is it an album offering revelations about “me”. Instead, Everyday Robots reconciles the two and finds common empathetic ground. Impressively, it’s about us.
John Robinson is associate editor of Uncut and the Guardian Guide’s rock critic. He lives in London.