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Wednesday 21 February 2018

The Pleasure List: Albarn's career goes by in a blur

Damon Albarn
Damon Albarn
Barry Egan

Barry Egan

Last February, the BBC's Culture Show filmed Damon Albarn outside his old home in Leytonstone, east London. The singer recounts the door opening – "and this very elegant, conservatively-dressed young girl in her mid-20s came out. And straight away, she went, 'Hello Mr Albarn'. And I went, 'Oh'!"

"She said, 'I know you used to live here,' and I went, 'How do you know that?' Then she told me that when she was a little girl, around 1995, another film crew came round and she remembered her mum wouldn't let them in," Damon continued.

"'And she won't let you in now, she said. Then, at the end, she went, 'Good luck, I know you've got a new record coming out' – she knew everything, basically, about me. I thought that was really, really nice, so I said, 'Give my love to the house'."

Damon's new album Everyday Robots takes part of its inspiration from the memories of that house and its surrounding areas. On the doleful song Hollow Ponds, a manmade lake in Leytonstone, Damon sings: "Chill on the hollow ponds/

Set sail by a kid/

In the heat wave that hit us all, 1976." Elsewhere, he uses the Leytonstone City Mission Choir on the sublime Heavy Seas Of Love.

An abstract, even wistful, introspective record, Everyday Robots is dilettantish Damon Albarn's first solo album, and predominantly piano-led. Coupled with ambient arrangements and off-kilter trip-hop, it projects Damon's voice to the front.

It is not easy to categorise, a bit like the author himself. But it is the 46-year-old with his masks removed.

Liberated from the constraints of Blur and side projects like Gorillaz, or The Good The Bad and the Queen – or composing operas (Journey To The West) loosely around the Chinese pentatonic scale – or records (Dr Dee) about the life of 16th-century English mystic John Dee – Damon has no choice here on Everyday Robots but to be himself, whatever that is.

It is his most starkly personal album, primarily because it is his first really nakedly autobiographical record.

"It would have been harder to explain if I had put this out under any other name," he told the New York Times recently.

"I'm a complete first-timer, a newcomer, under my own name, which is bizarre. I feel like I'm on my umpteenth apprenticeship. It's actually quite a relief to be starting again. There's something honest about starting afresh." That honesty is here in abundance.

On You and Me, he sings the line, "Tin foil and a lighter, the ship across, five days on, two days off", a reference to his hardly top-secret heroin period 15 years, or thereabouts, ago. (On the 1997 song Beetlebum, lest we forget, Albarn sang, "She turns me on/ I just slip away and I am gone", a song as much about smack as it was about his mutually destructive relationship with then girlfriend, Justine Frischmann of Elastica, who dabbled with heroin too).

Alienation is a dominant leitmotif throughout.

"I had a dream you were leaving," he sings, almost like a mantra of domestic bliss gone stale on The Selfish Giant.

"It's hard to be a lover when the TV's on and there's nothing in your eyes." He sings on the melancholic title track: "We are everyday robots on our phones."

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