Blur singer Damon Albarn has had 20 years of practice perfecting a certain kind of song. It’s a sad song but comfortable in its sadness, the kind of song that might make might you stop in a crowded bar and remember that even beautiful things come to an end. It is grand, but rumpled and a little isolated, too. It has quieter places to be. For someone who has performed in front of a crowd of 200,000 people, Damon Albarn never seems to be far from his next nap.Blur has been on and off hiatus since 2003. Since then, Albarn has made 12 albums, including four with the downturned pop collage project Gorillaz, who came on like an afterthought and ended up selling millions of records anyway. He has co-written two film soundtracks and two operas. He has collaborated with folk musicians in Mali and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and with the rigorously buttoned-up English composer Michael Nyman.
He has also partnered in a label called Honest Jon’s that specializes in curiosities like London is the Place for Me, a four-volume set of Calypso, jazz, and highlife. He is your dog-eared friend who never seems to be doing much and yet gets more done than anyone. All the Albarns appear on Everyday Robots. It is sleepy music, with the looseness of reggae and the bittersweet grace of gospel and soul. It connects the globetrotting Albarn to the fashionably moody one who sang Blur songs like “Badhead” and “This Is a Low” and “Tender”, without Blur’s reluctant grandeur.
Most of its songs are anchored by drum-machine heartbeats down low and plinking acoustic sounds up top, with a big warm hole in the middle. (Robots was produced by both Albarn and XL Recordings owner Richard Russell, who Albarn has previously worked with on Gil Scott-Heron’s I’m New Here and Bobby Womack’s The Bravest Man in the Universe, albums with a similarly old-soul quality.) Albarn is famous whether he cares about fame or not, but has tended to set his own name to the side. Robots is actually the first time an album has been credited to Damon Albarn and Damon Albarn alone.
There he is on the cover, sitting in the middle of an indefinite gray space, hanging his head and smirking at some private joke, the boy who refuses to look at the camera even when it’s time for his close up. Robots relishes in alienation, and specifically in the way technology facilitates it. Cultural concerns like this are important but can feel pedantic when turned into art. Parts of Robots—the lyrics of “Lonely Press Play” and the title track, for example—are obvious statements made in obvious ways, right-on but one-dimensional, melancholy rendered melancholically.
More interesting is when Albarn manages to graze the side of his subject matter in a way that knocks it into place. Robots starts with a sample from the British comedian Lord Buckley talking about the explorer Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca: “They didn’t know where they was goin’ but they knew where they was wasn’t it.” Removed from its literal context the line becomes a comment about society writ large. “Mr. Tembo”, a sweet, upbeat song Albarn originally sang for a baby elephant he met in Tanzania, keeps returning to the refrain, “It’s where he is now but it wasn’t what he planned”—a reminder that unfortunate circumstances are less important than how you deal with them.
The album’s best songs, “Photographs (You Are Taking Now)” and “You & I”, mention Albarn’s hot-button topics but set them to the side, frames about other kinds of stories more than the stories themselves. Albarn has often been compared to English writers like Ray Davies but has always seemed more like Paul Simon, a heavy-hearted and moody person who nevertheless manages to bring a room together. A lot of pressure rests on an album like this but it would seem out of character for him to rise to it. Robots is decidedly lowercase music, more a piece of his puzzle than a picture on its own. ( By Mike Powell from pickfork.com )