BEST OF 2014: 1. Damon Albarn – Everyday Robots

I don’t imagine regular readers will be enormously surprised to find this album installed at the top of the 2014 list. Damon Albarn and the songs which form ‘Everyday Robots’ have been a consistent and significant soundtrack to my year. The promo CD arrived on the morning that we started the mammoth task of cleaning and completely redecorating the rather downtrodden house we moved into back in February. The Bristol gig at the end of May was a euphoric evening spent about ten foot away from an artist I have adored for over twenty years. The Albert Hall gig in November felt like a grand celebration and a thank you, running both ways, for all that has gone before. The songs seemed to grow across the course of ten months, beautiful in all incarnations and quite definitively the music of this year. I was keen to review the record for Clash, not just to ensure that I got to hear it early – although that was certainly a substantial factor – but also to avoid Albarn potentially getting the hipster shoeing that has become rather common in recent years. Yes, he tries his hand at lots of things and, yes, he seems fairly aware of the fact he’s good at it. I imagine he’d be rather less good at getting it done if he wasn’t and, while I can see how some people get rubbed up the wrong way, I’d at least hope that everybody reading this would be smart enough to at least give it a go. What you will find is a cohesive, understated but melodically rich set of songs which far from being samey are as delicately crafted as any he has previously written.

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My original review attempted to address this thought head on. I’ve tinkered with it and extended bits, but I largely stand by what I said then. The record has lost none of its charms. So, imagine a soft fade, a misty screen and  some harp as we go back to the album’s release in April.

Forgive me for being so upfront but would you mind if we just dispense with the naively retrograde hopes held by some that this will be a grandiose big-budget blockbusting record that revisits the sounds of Britpop? Because, that is one thing it very much isn’t. What it is, however, is a subtle, textured patchwork covering Albarn’s forty-five years to date, with lyrics capturing snapshots of his childhood in Leytonstone through to a song he made up for a baby elephant he met in Tanzania. Oddly pilloried in some quarters for his sense of musical adventure, it’s worth observing that Albarn may be the most consistently impressive songsmith of the last couple of decades and ‘Everyday Robots’ is littered with evidence that his title should be safe.

Having worked with XL owner and renowned producer Richard Russell on 2012’s wondrous Bobby Womack offering ‘The Bravest Man In The Universe’, Albarn opted to put himself in the solo spotlight and leave his friend behind the desk. Russell’s signature stripped back sound is all over ‘Everyday Robots’, but it serves the songs well. Little touches like the piano motif from the title track reappearing at the end of album-closing Brian Eno collaboration ‘Heavy Seas Of Love’ are a delight. Similarly endearing is the way in which several tracks mutate to flow into each other, not least the gradual hastening of the beat at the end of ‘Lonely Press Play’ to cue in ‘Mr Tembo’. Albarn clearly feels the spotlight on him and there is a sincere fragility to some of these songs that he’s rarely shown on record before.

Albarn appears to be railing against the technological oppression of twenty-first century living, whether proclaiming that “it’s hard to be a lover when the tv’s on” on ‘The Selfish Giant’ or exploring the idea that humans will evolve to the point where their hands only have strong scrolling thumbs. Musically, the penchant for subtle melody that he has explored so well through The Good, The Bad & The Queen and some of the less chart-shagging Gorillaz material burns bright. The seven minute sprawl of ‘You And Me’ seems to be lolloping along before dropping down to a steel drum from which it rebuilds, sounding like the fuzzy early hours of a summer’s morning and topped with a fragile falsetto that provides the album’s highpoint.

The phrase slow-burner is tossed around rather carelessly, but ‘Everyday Robots’ is a definite contender. Months on from the first listen, it feels like it’s always been there. It doesn’t burn out so much as creep up and these songs offer yet another new guise for a remarkable talent. Through live performance, they have evolved, grown bolder and more emphatic, but at their core is some of the most personal and direct writing Albarn has ever put forward. Whether it will ever mean as much to you as it does to me, I’ve no idea. We all have certain albums which just click and become like old friends. Its frequent presence in my life continued as the year progressed, discovering a phrase from my review on the promo poster when scrounging one from my local record shop and then finding my own words quoted back at me in the autumn whilst casually scrolling through a BBC guide to the Mercury Prize. That my writing has been reprinted, and about one of my favourite artists to boot, is, of course, rather lovely, but I’m confident I’d be saying all of this even if I’d had to wait until release day to get hold of the album. Truth be told, I’ve known since April that ‘Everyday Robots’ was unlikely to be toppled. Recent listens only cemented its place and, whatever your view of Albarn, be sure to give it time. There’s talk of more Gorillaz, more The Good, The Bad & The Queen and no doubt dozens of other collaborations, but it’s reassuring that when he simply goes by his own name he can still deliver remarkable music.