Throughout his career, Damon Albarn has worn many masks. In his long tenure as the frontman for Blur, he often played the part of angsty British teen heartthrob. Yet despite the band’s critical and commercial success (or perhaps the looming threat of UK chart competitors Oasis), Albarn had never seemed completely comfortable in the role. His decision to step behind the digital curtain at the turn of the century shocked many fans; though in retrospect, his career as the mastermind/songwriter behind the virtual band Gorillaz is perhaps his most celebrated and eclectic. Though as any Gorillaz fan could tell you, Albarn functioned largely as an altruistic facilitator for his bizarre musical fantasies, allowing various guest artists to vocalize the fictional band’s sporadic personalities. Now in 2014, Albarn is ready to set down the controller and let the world see his true self. But can we genuinely connect with a man who spent over a decade voicing a cartoon band?
Luckily, Everyday Robots has every sense of being a driving personal narrative. On his first record as a solo artist, Albarn bares his soul for all to hear; every neatly crooned lyric on Everyday Robots could have been lifted from a pensive diary entry. Gone are the hip hop and Brit-rock flavors of his previous projects, replaced by simple, serene piano and some very subtle beats. “Hostiles” literally ticks by like a menacing clock, evoking the flashing LCDs and mistaken intentions that are so familiar in our “press send” digital age. “You & Me” sounds like a drunken late-commute on the tunnel to nowhere; it’s detached and cautiously restrained, revealing only a sullen guilt (“You can blame me/ When the twilight comes”). Albarn possesses a deft command of language, frequently conjuring images of lonely gray ponds and damp walks on callous streets. He’s pensive and wistful, but a little too neat in practice. After hearing such playful wit made ubiquitous in Gorillaz canon, Everyday Robots sounds withdrawn and more than a little bored.
Depending on your experience with dark ambient music, your feelings toward this album will drift wildly between curious fascination and utter boredom. Albarn weaves a compelling yarn, but deliberately omits anything that resembles pop predilection. The only song with single-worthy potential is “Lonely Press Play,” a loner’s love letter to the Walkman marked by tranquil piano and a brooding bounce. There are some glaring annoyances too; the spoken-word samples are aggravating, and songs like “Mr. Tembo” and “Heavy Seas of Love” are dopey at best (kindly leave the songs about elephants to Tame Impala). Despite some cartoonish missteps and a benign aesthetic, Everyday Robots presents an astute look at one of modern music’s most puzzling oddballs. Here is the witty Britpop darling at his most vulnerable, personable, and contemplative. On his premiere solo outing, Damon Albarn has the makings of an adept musician who can put his inner demons on center stage; but perhaps they’d be more comfortable behind the curtain.