Damon Albarn is, without doubt, pop’s premier renaissance man. His first band, for better or worse, helped define a decade and a nation, his second reinvented the possibilities of just what a “real” band could be. He’s insanely prolific, apparently capable of knocking out post-modern pop operas before lunch. Meanwhile, everyone from Bobby Womack to Brian Eno, Dangermouse to De La Soul line up to work with him. Is it any wonder that the less charitable amongst us might just be forgiven for believing he’s an overachieving egomaniac, incapable of hitting the self-edit button?
Still, it’s not all shits and giggles at the top, and Damon — being the sensitive artiste that he is, is only too aware of what ails the human condition: The blanding out and dumbing down of popular culture, the facelessness of 21st century living where technology has created a great disconnect between us all and each one of us becomes a hermetically sealed island of self doubt. These are just some of the lofty themes dealt with on Everyday Robots, Albarn’s first solo album, out today.
Suffice to say, a laugh riot it is not. Indeed, Albarn’s claimed that this is his most nakedly autobiographical work to date, and as such, it’s a stripped down, spartan affair. Loneliness, regret, mid-life angst — it’s all here, wrapped up in a thoroughly downbeat, melancholic whole. We’re talking three-in-the-morning, dark night of the soul introspection, leavened with slight but pretty melodies, and a whole shedload of wistful yearning. Those in search of the jauntiness of, say, a “Country House,” or “Dirty Harry,” are likely to be sorely disappointed. It’s a frequently gorgeous (the title-track and “Heavy Seas of Love” in particular), low-key entry into the Albarn songbook, but ultimately one that’s just a little too slight to be truly arresting. Albarn obsessives will love it regardless, but for the rest of us, file it alongside the likes of Dr. Dee — a curiosity of sorts, a diverting chapter in a most singular creative career.
Meanwhile, those in need of reminding why Albarn is still one of the great talents to emerge from the U.K. in the last 20 years need only look below. We present you with 10 of his finest moments and before any of you ungrateful bastards start grumbling, yes, it veers towards the obvious and yes, the glaring lack of “Sing,” or, perhaps, “Music Is My Radar,” is tantamount to musical heresy, but we were limited to 10, so… Enjoy…
After the false dawn of their debut, Albarn and his troops reassembled, took stock and set out to create defiantly Anglo-centric (these were the Grunge years, remember, when you couldn’t move for plaid-clad American long hairs peddling third-rate Sabbath riffs…), art school pop. The result was Modern Life is Rubbish, arguably their best album, and this was its calling card. Smart, sharp, polished, echoes of Syd Barret-meets-XTC, a terrace-chant of a chorus and Graham Coxon gets to go mental on the guitar. Perfect.
“Girls and Boys”
Twenty years on and this remains one of the most deliriously odd U.K. chart smashes in living memory. Channeling the cold angularity of Wire, it’s a jerky, robotic student union classic in which Albarn turns an amused/appalled eye upon the mating habits of the U.K.’s working class, as they fuck, fight and booze across the Mediterranean like there’s no tomorrow.
“This is a Low”
Poignant state of the nation/internal crises address that takes the U.K. shipping forecast as a point of departure and turns it into pure poetry. One of Albarn’s finest, most heartfelt vocals, perhaps Blur’s best, a record that builds and builds then finally erupts with Coxon unleashing his inner Hendrix. Magnificent in every sense of the word.
Melancholic indictment of the hollow promises of Tony Blair’s Britain and the insidious lure of Lottery culture. Stately Spector-ish strings and a huge, anthemic chorus that can still reduce stadiums full of men-of-a-certain age to gibbering, tear-soaked wrecks. All this plus a video that features the band decked out in full-on Clockwork Orange gear. What’s not to love?
“Woo Hoo! / And I feel heavy metal”
After consciously deciding they just might have been getting a tad too English for American ears, the band strip it back and dumb it down to glorious affect. It’s the one that, for better or worse, broke them Stateside, a beast of a track that features monster riffing and a hook line that an Alzheimer-afflicted chimp could grasp. Some see it as an acerbic swipe at late 20th century consumer culture. Others, however, see it as nothing more than a track that incites aging Frat Boys to get leery and shake their beer-soaked man tits in the direction of unsuspecting passers by.
In which our heroes tackle the messy issue of heroin use and abuse and its enduring allure. A looping, sinister riff courtesy of Graham Coxon, the preeminent, absolute guitar god of his generation (with due deference to contemporaries John Squire, Kevin Shields or Bernard butler, Coxon reigns supreme…), ridiculously great vocal harmonies, and a melody blatantly nicked from the Beatles (“While My Guitar Gently Weeps” in particular). Who knew smack could sound so sexy?
This was a close one, with the teary “No Distance Left to Run,” running neck and neck in the heartbreak stakes. But, on reflection, “Tender” emerges victorious. A raw, naked vocal from Coxon trades with Damon’s melancholic majesty, as the death of a love affair is turned — with the not inconsiderable help of the London Community Gospel Choir — into a rapturous, euphoric thing of wonder, an ecstatic hymn to healing and the power of love.
“Feel Good Inc.”
In which Damon, once cheekily described by band mate Alex James as “the blackest white man in West London,” discovers his inner B-Boy, hangs out with Tank Girl‘s Jamie Hewlett, invents Gorillaz, enlists his considerable Rolodex of music biz chums, and gets frivolous and funky. Despite stiff competition (“Dirty Harry,” “Dare,” “Clint Eastwood”), this just might be Gorillaz finest moment with a killer video, the combined heroics of De La Soul, and Albarn’s most wistful vocal yet.
The Good, the Bad & the Queen
Frankly, at this point, we were inclined to include The Good, the Bad & the Queen in its entirety, as it’s consistently magnificent and proves that the vaguely repellant super group concept need not necessarily result in flaccid, self-indulgent shite. So we give you these two gems:
“Kingdom of Doom”
“Drink all day / ‘Cos the country’s at war”
Fear and Loathing in West London. A downbeat diamond of a track in which Albarn gazes out at a country living in the shadow of the Iraq war, replete with one of his finest melodies to date, ably underpinned by the depth charge bass rumble of ex-Clash Godhead Paul Simenon.
A companion piece to “Kingdom of Doom, a thing of rare beauty and a damning indictment of Tony Blair’s Britain, and the aftermath of New Labour’s “hollow promises,” where a country lies fragmented, its inhabitants apathetic, downtrodden and drugged up. Not exactly a laugh fest then…