I was in preschool when Parklife, Blur’s seminal third record, was released. The album celebrated its 20th birthday this past Friday, which maybe-not-so-coinicidentally coincided with this week’s release of the first ever solo record from Damon Albarn, the mastermind behind the London-based quintet known as Blur.
Parklife was massive and groundbreaking, and music bloggers from both sides of the Atlantic wrote tributes to the album this past week. Many of these pieces focus on each author’s personal connection with Blur; seemingly every article mentions where they were when they first heard Blur in their local record shop or that they were in one of those infamous half-full music venues when Albarn and co. toured America in the mid-90s. Every author seems to have a personal anecdote about how “Girls And Boys” soundtracked their college parties or how “This is a Low” got them through their first breakup.
I wasn’t there for Britpop and I can’t write this article pretending that I was. I found Britpop by looking to the past and reassessing the present. I discovered Blur through a random musical stream of consciousness beginning with Arctic Monkeys’ 2006 performance on SNL, but the movement’s original torchbearers led me to where I am today. The inspiration behind Damon Albarn’s Everyday Robots is not so different: looking back on his life, one of Britain’s greatest modern songwriters is using his debut solo album to finally write about it.
To celebrate this first for Albarn, I’ll be looking at the themes that make up Everyday Robots and map them through the artist’s earlier works — Blur, Gorillaz, and The Good, the Bad & the Queen — that provide great snapshots into the time periods that seem to motivate specific songs on Everyday Robots. Though this list is far from comprehensive, it should begin to give you an idea of who Damon Albarn is, without referencing “Song 2.”
The first and most obvious theme of Everyday Robots concerns today’s use of modern technology. Albarn has always embraced the future, whether “holding on for tomorrow” or proclaiming that “the future is coming on.” I mean, the guy wrote and recorded an entire album on his iPad!
On Everyday Robots, he criticizes our dependence on our iPhones in the first line of the album: “We are everyday robots on our phones / In the process of getting home / Looking like standing stones / Out there on our own.” Not only is Albarn critiquing our tech dependence, but there’s a sense of loneliness that underlies each line. Technology gets us through depression and boredom — “When I’m lonely I press play” — but it deceives and leads us into a downhill spiral of loneliness at the same time: “It’s hard to be a lover when the TV’s on and nothing’s in your eyes.”
Describing a boring futuristic world where everyone lives through their TVs, Damon Albarn hits us with one of his most 1984-esque songs while somehow making it sound unbelievably uplifting. “The Universal” is one of Blur’s most universally loved songs, yet the lyrics generally fly under the radar. While most of the Western world has “satellites [or cable] in every home” now, Albarn takes the opposite stance as on “Lonely Press Play,” and bluntly states, “No one here is alone.” Yes it really kind of already happened…
On one of the first Gorillaz tracks to make it big, Albarn keeps with his theme in a slightly different way. Taking on Big Brother this time, he sings that “We got no camera to see” but “the camera won’t let me go.” The technological advances in video led to a huge surveillance state in the UK; it is estimated that the average Briton is caught on camera 300 times a day. “The future is coming on,” but not necessarily in the ideal way…
This time, Albarn’s fears about technology go down a culinary route. Featuring Gruff Rhys and De La Soul on Gorillaz’ 2010 single, “Superfast Jellyfish” takes on the fast food industry. “This morning you’ve got time for a hot, home-cooked breakfast / Delicious and piping hot in only three microwave minutes” goes the beginning of the track, while Albarn seems to offer a satirical advertisement for fast food restaurants because hey, you don’t have to wait anymore!
While more understated than the last theme, Everyday Robots does in fact discuss what it truly means to be British, one of Albarn’s favorite topics. Albarn became known as the wittiest lyricist in Britain in the 90s thanks to his satirical work in the “Life” trilogy: Modern Life is Rubbish, Parklife and The Great Escape. Albarn is at his best as a social critic and he continues the trend on Everyday Robots, albeit in a slightly subdued manner.
In an article written after Blur was chosen to reunite and close out the 2012 London Olympics in Hyde Park, Neil McCormick of The Telegraph describes Damon Albarn perfectly, saying that Blur represents “another Britain: edgy, irreverent, self-critical, satirical, anti-establishment yet simultaneously fascinated and indeed proud of national heritage and characteristics.” All of these adjectives describe the rest of Albarn’s music, including his new solo album.
“This is a Low” touches upon Britain’s pessimistic tendencies, as it isn’t Albarn who screams that “this is a low” — it’s the radio. While it’s hard to catch all the specific London references in there, you can get the gist of the track without knowing the geography. No great British song, however, can go without at least one jab at the Queen: “And the Queen, she’s gone round the bend / Jumped off the Land’s End.” While I may be from California, I imagine “This is a Low” nails what being British is truly like.
Similar to “Parklife,” “Bank Holiday” does a great job in satirizing a post-Thatcher England. Unions had vanished and an ultra neoliberal economy had taken the Iron Lady’s place, leading to mass layoffs and longer working hours. Seemingly, the only escape from it all were bank holidays, which “comes with a six pack of beer / then it’s back to work A.G.A.I.N.” The BBQs, block parties and drinking are all present here, however fleeting they may be.
“Herculean” comes from one of Albarn’s more underrated side projects, The Good, the Bad & the Queen, a supergroup featuring Paul Simonon from the Clash, Simon Tong from the Verve, Tony Allen from Fela Kuti and Danger Mouse behind the soundboard. The track is self-critical of British society, particularly London. Celebrating “the ghost gone by” of international prominence, “the medicine man here 24/7” now reigns supreme in modern London. “Herculean” may not be as outrageously satirical like most songs from mid-90s Blur, it still does a great job at hinting that modern life may actually be rubbish.
After listening to Albarn for a while, you begin to wonder who exactly the “you” is in all his songs. Everyday Robots seems at times to be a conversation between Albarn and a lover, but each sentence carries with it sadness and depression. It’s almost as if past heartbreak has beaten him down so many times that he’s just too tired to let it get to him again.
This theme of looking back at heartbreak is present throughout the album, but mainly shows up in “The History of a Cheating Heart” and “You & Me,” which features hushed vocals from Bat for Lashes’ Natasha Khan. The second half refrain, “You can blame me, blame me, blame me, blame me / When the twilight comes / All goes round again,” gives the listener a feeling that nothing can hurt him as bad as past breakups.
One of the greatest break up songs of all time. Following Albarn’s disastrous breakup with Justine Frischmann, the lead singer of Blur’s Britpop contemporary Elastica, Damon Albarn wrote 13, an excellent yet incredibly depressing album that departed from much of Blur’s prior material. “Caramel” sticks out in particular as it literally sounds like Albarn is going insane as the song progresses. The subtle guitar line backing Albarn almost whispering, “I’ve got to get over / I’ve got to get better / Will love you forever,” feels like a punch to the stomach for anyone who’s been through a bad breakup before.
Continuing where “Caramel” leaves off, 13‘s next track “No Distance Left to Run” feels like Albarn’s uneasy acceptance of the break up because there’s nothing else he can do. “When you see me / Please turn your back and walk away / I don’t want to see you” is the response to “I’ve got to get over” from “Caramel.” Now can you see why Albarn’s troubles in Everyday Robots seem a little easier to get through?
While most of Gorillaz’ music is upbeat, “On Melancholy Hill” is the one track that reminds us of Albarn’s past (or perhaps present) heartbreak. While the lyrics alone read like a love song, the slow acoustic guitar and the prolonged background vocals prove otherwise. It’s obvious that when Albarn sings, “Are you here with me? / Just looking out on the day of another dream,” that his love interest is not there alongside him. This is the first example in Albarn’s back catalogue that portrays the feeling of “You & Me;” no one can hurt him as bad as Justine, but the legacy of that breakup will always stick with him.
Everyday Robots is a very nostalgic record. Some of the songs were written after Albarn visited his hometown of Leytonstone City for the first time in years. The memories flooded back, including the partying ways of his early twenties. Albarn’s past heroin and cocaine use is mentioned in this album, the first time these stories have seen the light of day. In particular,“Hollow Ponds” acts as a narrative of Albarn’s past life, going into more detail than ever before. In the song, he doesn’t necessarily look down upon his past partying ways, but embraces it, knowing full well that he’s definitely past it.
“Girls who are boys who like boys to be girls who do boys like they’re girls who do girls like they’re boys” was the unexpected chorus that perhaps best represented Britpop in the 1990s. The verses glorify crazy holidays to Greece where love is paranoid, but actually finding love is not really on anyone’s mind. This was probably the height of Albarn’s partying ways and may be during the “five days on, two days off” heroin period of his life as mentioned in “You & Me.”
Here Albarn goes into full party mode. If you’ve heard any of his songs at a party in America, it was probably this one. “Jump with them all and move it / Jump back and forth / And feel like you were there yourself” is about as far as Albarn could have gotten from 2003’s Think Tank. This was a track made for dance halls in New York, Berlin and everywhere in between.
It doesn’t have the same effect as “DARE” since Deltron provides all of the vocals, but the fact that Albarn would put out a track like this only a couple years after 13 speaks volumes. It’s impossible to envision Albarn putting out a song like this now, but it’s got to be hard for Damon not to look back at this period with at least a slight grin. He may have just entered middle age and be past his partying days, but these last three tracks must force Albarn to think, “damn that was fun!”
Damon Albarn’s debut solo album, Everyday Robots is out now worldwide. Don’t miss out on what could be one of the best albums released in 2014. Grab it here via Warner Bros.