I’m always pleased when a musician I love signs on to a new project, especially when that project signals some kind of artistic reinvention. And I’m always pissed off on behalf of these musicians when they can’t escape the chains of comparison to their previous projects. I’d probably seen Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks a dozen times before my band toured with them this year, and every time a member of the crowd shouted an entitled request for “Summer Babe,” I found myself rolling my eyes. Did people at LCD Soundsystem shows scream out titles of Speedking songs? Are St. Vincent concerts a sea of Polyphonic Spree t-shirts? (Better yet, are Polyphonic Spree concerts a sea of Tripping Daisy t-shirts? And where can I find a Tripping Daisy t-shirt?) It seems this curse of comparison mostly applies to frontpersons, who cannot shrug off their back catalogues, shrug and shrug though they might.
I can imagine this new Damon Albarn album, the first he’s released under his own name, will be unable to escape comparisons to his more famous and longstanding previous endeavors, and that’s a shame. It’s a lovely, sparse album which uses silence with delicate precision. Where Blur and Gorillaz albums were filled to the brim with hyper-arrangement, Everyday Robots is a still vacuum in which piano loops, guitar strums, and programmed beats serve to frame Albarn’s unusually balladeering voice. It’s exciting to me to hear an artist more than 20 years into his discography exploring new, sparser orchestrations which leave the songs to speak for themselves rather than letting bonkers production usher in his melodies, or relying on guest performances to spice up each track. (Although, in fairness, Natasha Khan, Brian Eno and a children’s choir do make guest appearances.)
It’s a lonelier sound than the all-in-together gusto for which Albarn’s made himself known, and part of that transmitted solitude has to do with the lyrics, which cycle around self-enforced isolation via LCD screens and data plans. Title track “Everyday Robots” imagines zombified, Wasteland-ish commuters, heading home while glued to their smartphones. Later in the album, Albarn advises, “If you’re lonely, press play,” in a song that might’ve fit well on the Her soundtrack (if the Her soundtrack only featured songs that absolutely mirrored its plot). “Photographs (You Are Taking Now)” has an outerspacey eeriness to it; the songs that deal with other humans are melancholic, especially the gorgeous, string-laden “Hostiles.” Aesthetically, it’s a remarkably consistent album, somber and woozy, apart from the Paul Simon-circa-Graceland-esque “Mr. Tembo,” which is too goofy and uplifting to fit in well with the rest of the songs (even though — cute alert — it’s a song dedicated to a motherless baby elephant).
But it’s OK that one of the songs is over-the-top, and that the pacing of the album is a little staggered, because I think Everyday Robots was always meant to be somewhat self-indulgent. Albarn has said the album, reportedly culled from over 60 tracks, is an unusually personal one for him, and for that reason he can kind of choose what he wants to do. In this case, his indulgence comes in the form of peeling back the layers, and creating a sound very distinct from his previous music, despite the consistency of the songwriter behind the compositions.
For me, that’s the album’s greatest strength: the way it evidences Albarn’s clear desire to constantly challenge himself by attempting new sounds and modes. Yet I’ve already heard critiques that this album “sounds like the sadder Blur songs, but less well arranged.” That seems like a reductive comment to make about a songwriter who’s spent over two decades proving he’s able to reinvent his sound, but oh well. For those who can’t move on from his back catalogue, maybe he’ll play an acoustic “Feel Good Inc.” on tour if you shout for it loud enough. I’ll be the person next to you, rolling my eyes, hoping to hear the new stuff.