Everyday Robots is—technically—Damon Albarn’s solo debut, a set of intimate tunes made almost entirely on his own, reflecting inward on his personal life. But it’s not really a change of pace. No matter the stylistic dalliance, whether Brit-pop (Blur), electro-pop (Gorillaz), art-rock (The Good, the Bad, & the Queen), opera (Dr. Dee), or Afro-funk (Rocket Juice & the Moon), all of the man’s projects share the obvious thread of Albarnism—an affinity for nagging melody and a spirit of melancholy that wraps you up like a warm blanket. Everyday Robots is no exception, regardless of semantics.
Within, Albarn explores the more reflective side of his songwriting, stripping away all excess. In the past, he’s made a career out of collaboration—whether it’s the hoard of guest appearances (and cartoon set-up) of Gorillaz or the band context of his recent side-projects. Here, fittingly, the album’s few guest appearances (Natasha Khan’s gentle harmony on “The Selfish Giant,” Eno’s delicate synths on “You & Me”) slither in and exit with minimal fanfare. Most of Robots sounds like it could have been made by Albarn by himself on Pro Tools—the only constant collaborator is XL executive Richard Russell, who offers the sort of minimal beats that Albarn likely would have crafted himself.
The opening title track establishes the album’s focused template, Albarn crooning about the alienation of modern society (“We are everyday robots on our phones / in the process of going own / looking like standing stones / out there on our own”) over mournful piano chords, frayed string loops and a simple gurgle of electro-bass; the tender “Photographs” finds Albarn exploring his warm lower register over a barely-there kick drum and watery piano; “The Selfish Giant” is a seductive ballad about disintegrating love (“It’s hard to be a lover when the TV’s on / and there’s nothing in your eyes”) built on fluttering woodwind samples and dusty hi-hats.
There are occasional bursts of levity—like the breezy “Mr. Tembo” (which finds Albarn serenading a baby elephant over a ukelele strum) or cornball closer “Heavy Seas of Love,” which features a full Pentecostal choir—and Albarn sharing a jaunty chorus with Brian Eno like two burly seamen. But those rainbow bursts feel like puzzling aberrations within the album’s gripping sadness.
What’s in a name? Ultimately, Everyday Robots just sounds like another great album from one of pop music’s most fearless sonic chameleons.