Everyday Robots

Damon Albarn

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Everyday Robots Review

by Stephen Thomas Erlewine

If there ever were a modern rock star who could be called an auteur, it'd be Damon Albarn. As the leader of Blur, he was responsible for the group's grand themes, taking credit for the birth of Brit-pop circa 1993's Modern Life Is Rubbish, but his signature -- a sly, theatrical blend of melodic post-punk and new wave undercut by electronic exoticism and a thirst for world music -- grew ever more distinctive in the projects he pursued after the group's 2003 dissolution, surfacing in the dystopian future of Gorillaz and the glum present of the Good, the Bad & the Queen. He didn't hide within a collective so much as embrace collaboration, using other musicians to accelerate exploration, with all the different musicians underscoring his own world-view. Albarn is not without a collaborator on Everyday Robots, his first official pop solo album (he released the experimental opera Dr. Dee under his own name in 2012). He's produced by Richard Russell, the head of XL Records, and Damon's co-producer on Bobby Womack's 2012 comeback The Bravest Man in the Universe, a sparse electronic soul album that shares some skeletal characteristics with Everyday Robots. Russell assists Albarn in shaping Everyday Robots into a quiet, contemplative extended meditation on modernity and the past, a record that seems personal but stops just short of confessional. "Hollow Ponds," which intercuts pivotal vignettes from throughout his life, acts as the autobiographical centerpiece but often the lyrics that stick depict the isolation of modern technology, the "everyday robots on our phones" who press play when they're lonely. Underneath this high-tech alienation, what's left unspoken is how Albarn and Russell are hardly Luddites. Everyday Robots embraces modern technology -- its rhythms are digitized, electronic instruments are interwoven with acoustics, spoken samples are deployed strategically -- which doesn't undercut Albarn's disconnection thesis so much as underscore his resignation at existing in the fractured present. This is the key dichotomy of the album; its surfaces are Spartan, its tempos slow and measured -- it quickens its step only at "Mister Tembo," a joyous ode to the birth of an elephant -- but it's a soulful album, not chilly. Its sadness is a warm, enveloping melancholy that harks back to the floating psychedelic dissociation of "This Is a Low" while touching upon the digital desolation of Demon Days. Upon repeated listens, the sorrowful undertow of Everyday Robots becomes a comfort, a balm for moments of alienation; it's the kind of record that when you're lonely, you press play.

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