Thursday, May 01, 2014

This is a high - Damon Albarn: Everyday Robots/Blur: Parklife

A week and twenty years ago, Blur released an album that many place amongst the likes of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and Never Mind The Bollocks, We're The Sex Pistols - and any one of a thousand others - as era-defining.

Parklife was the album that coalesced Britpop in the face of grunge (going on sale just four weeks after Kurt Cobain's death, too), embracing the Londoner's whimsy of Ray Davies, the offbeat brilliance of Syd Barrett, The Clash's street smarts and the infused Englishness of prog rock and the Bonzo Dog Doodah Band.

With its mock Eurosdisco hit (Boys And Girls) and the "dahhhnnn to Mar-gate" Mockney knees-up of its title track, Parklife established Blur as a band for art students and kebab shop oiks alike.

Unrelated to this statement, it it was the only album (actually, tape) available on the coach taking myself and fellow Chelsea fans to Bruges for a European Cup Winner's Cup quarter-final in February 1995.

With its somewhat knowing swagger, Parklife was the perfect soundtrack for the trip, for hardcore and arriviste Chelsea fans alike, being drawn to the Hoddle revolution then in progress, and on a day when the British press had predicted a convergence of Europe's worst football hooligans heading for a violent rendezvous in maps reminiscent of the Dad's Army title sequence. And so we made our way to the quaint medieval Belgian city in a convoy of buses leaving Fulham Broadway at the crack of dawn, listening to an an album which, like the joggers it depicts, seemed to go round and around and around....

Roger Waters once said that The Dark Side Of The Moon was the beginning of the end for Pink Floyd. Parklife was the end of the beginning for Damon Albarn, To The End and This Is A Low are the clues. In the 20 years since we have come to appreciate the creative combination of Albarn and Coxon, ranking them up there with Morrissey and Marr, Anderson and Butler, even Lennon and McCartney.

© Damon Albarn/Facebook

What we didn't expect was the eclectic trajectory Albarn would be propelled on, on his own. Anyone hoping for another Boys And Girls or Country House would be sorely baffled by his output in the two decades since Parklife: Gorillaz, The Good, The Bad & The Queen, Mali Music, Afrika Express and the Chinese opera Monkey: Journey To The West, all demonstrating what an annoyingly gifted git he is.

Which is a situation that hardly changes with the release, this week, of Everyday Robots, his very first solo album. Touching loosely on themes of modern life by technology, it is a wonderfully downbeat collection of largely melancholy essays on the absurdities of a world in which we communicate more via our mobile phones than by face-to-face contact.

These are, let's face it, the issues we 46-year-olds deal with. We show no fear of buying the latest gadgets but then catch ourselves ruminating on how they've destroyed the world we grew up in. Here beats the ponderous heart of Everyday Robots, an album which, beneath this seemingly Luddite premise, is actually peeling back the layers of Albarn's life to revisit the Essex and East London of his youth, the suburban sprawl that drifts in and out of concrete jungle and rural idyll.

From the outset - indeed, from the album's cover shot of Albarn slumped on a stool - this is clearly not the yapping puppy of Britpop's adolescence. The title track progresses to a tick-tock tempo drawn by a mournfully beautiful vocal and an infectious violin sample as Albarn considers how our smartphone-dominated lives have turned us into frantically thumbing zombies. Hostiles continues the mournful motif, drawing deep into Albarn's history and, perhaps, of a relationship that ended on failed communication.

Via a claustrophobically intimate groove, Lonely Press Play examines the role technology plays paradoxically in creating communication barriers, arguing - through an enjoyably soulful song - how we live our relationships vicariously through the 'play' button of our devices.

Glossing over the brief instrumental, Parakeet (inspired by the distinctive chirping of the colourful birds that pop up all over London)Albarn steps back into post-modern gloom with The Selfish Giant, a very Bowie-ish (and that's a good thing) study of the relationship between technology and its impact on social engagement ("it's hard to be a lover when the TV's on").

Two years ago, for a one-off (that led to speculation of a more permanent reunion), Blur produced the beautiful Under The Westway, their dystopian view of the London so wonderfully eulogised by The Kinks and The Clash. You And Me seems to return Albarn to the area around the A40 as it snakes north-west out of London and through the city's original melting pot of Notting Hill and West Kensington. With an infusion of steel drum towards the end (and a Robert Fripp-style guitar in its middle), You And Me associates itself with the Westway's street life, but unlike The Clash's raucous take on the area, Albarn appears to be raking up another part of his life, perhaps one alluded to in recent press revelations about his recreational heroin use.

If I have hitherto given the impression that Everyday Robots is a dour album, then I offer no apology. Certainly there are few songs on it that will challenge Pharrell's Happy for pick-me-up ringtones. Hollow Ponds, is definitely not one of them. But like a cold day under grey skies on a beach in northern Scotland, there is an inner beauty to this sepia-tinged retrospective, with a trombone adding a Last Of The Summer Wine-like pathos as Albarn returns to his Leytonstone roots, recalling childhood and the 1976 drought, and more recent developments, such as the arrival of the shopping centre at Lakeside. What is never sure is whether this autobiography is mere nostalgia or an attempt to rake around at the back of Albarn's memory for something distinct.

Taken as a whole, Everyday Robots can be considered in one of two ways: it is either a slit-your-wrists bleating of a polymath musician coming to terms with age and, yes, modern life; or it is an intelligently weighted concept album which successfully demonstrates just how gifted Albarn is in creating brilliantly nuanced music that - even now - still appeals to those whose interests in music range from the superficial to the headphones-attached, notepad-at-the-ready obsessed.

Thankfully, he ends the album on a distinct high: Heavy Seas Of Love. While not exactly in the same league of uplift as, say, Elbow's One Day Like This, it is certainly a more rounded, more accessible and full-resolution than others here, with an emotional warmth perhaps intentionally on the album in general. Joyous, nonetheless.
If Everyday Robots has a blip, or at least an incongruous moment, it is Mr Tembo. Written about a baby elephant that became, bizarrely, the house pet of a Tanzanian family Albarn befriended on a trip, it's gentle Jack Johnson jive might, in another album's context, provide pleasant uplift. Here, it is simply out of place - a pleasing-enough novelty, but just out of synch with the more rewarding introspection of the rest of the album.

Because this is an album designed for - and possibly created out of - those moments when you want to plug the ear buds in, shut out the technically complex world, and listen carefully to how someone else is dealing with it, it is reflective of the now, and strongly influenced by the then. A mid-life crisis by it's author? Not by intent, but clearly Albarn, when presented with the idea of a solo album (and in the process produced some 70-odd songs to pick from) focused it on parts of his past that couldn't or wouldn't be suppressed, and only needed an outlet to be explored.

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