Damon Albarn has always seemed most comfortable with some distance between himself and his music. As Blur‘s frontman, he played the tart-tongued wit, satirizing modern Britain from behind a wall of cheeky irony. With Gorillaz, he created the biggest virtual band since Kiss. Even his forays into global music – jamming with Malian guitar greats, traveling to China to write an opera – place him in the well-worn role of a worldly seeker losing himself in the exotic. In 2012, he made a record about the life of 16th-century English mystic John Dee. But he’s never really made a record about the life of 21st-century English mystic Damon Albarn.
Until now. All of Albarn’s musical obsessions are present on his revealing solo debut: dubby textures á la Gorillaz, Caribbean and African notes, looming classical instrumentation and church choruses that evoke England’s past – all wrapped around a singing voice that’s become deep and searching where it was once sharp and snarky. The past two Gorillaz albums, Plastic Beach and The Fall, both from 2010, often had a forlorn sense of spliffed-out drift. The mood on Everyday Robots is even more sparely intimate, and often quite downbeat.
Albarn is an avid collaborator who has worked with greats like Bobby Womack and Lou Reed. But his pals stay low-key here. Producer Richard Russell sculpts alluring atmospheric beats; Bat for Lashes singer Natasha Khan lends a faint harmony to the fragile relationship autopsy “The Selfish Giant”; Brian Eno adds synths to “You & Me” and vocals to the woozy chantey “Heavy Seas of Love.” The results can often recall Seventies Eno at his most meditative and Village Green-era Ray Davies at his most world-sick more than Gorillaz’s bounce or Blur’s guitar buzz.
The opening title track sets the softly alienated tone. Albarn floats amid a sea of commuters staring at their phones – “Looking like standing stones/Out there on our own.” The track mixes Eastern and Western strings, somber piano and a hobbled, percussive groove that’s evocatively primitive but utterly modern. Other songs work similar musical balances while mapping out Albarn’s personal history. “You & Me” takes place during a Trinidadian carnival near his West London home, with steel drums playing against an unsure digital skitter. On the album’s brightest tune, “Mr. Tembo,” based on a trip he took to a Tanzanian nature preserve, Albarn strums a happy ukulele and serenades a baby elephant.
The album’s most revealing track is “Hollow Ponds,” which moves like a sad processional and reflects on scenes from throughout Albarn’s life: a childhood vacation to the Black Sea; the day when he noticed the London graffiti that inspired the title of Blur’s first great album, 1993’s Modern Life Is Rubbish. The reel of images seems to compete, or merge with, “the dreams we share on LCDs.” As the song ends, we hear the sampled sound of a rumbling subway train. With a restless innovator like Albarn, where you’re going always matters more than where you’ve been.