The Lord Buckley quote which opens it – “they didn’t know where they was going, but they knew where they was wasn’t it” – reflects both Albarn’s restless musical imagination, and his youthful peregrination between Leytonstone and Essex. The journey swings between urban-cosmopolitan and rural-English, the divergent poles of a personality that enables him to stand alongside quintessentially English songwriters such as Ray Davies.
But rather than his cheery pop muse, the arrangements reveal the melancholy in his memories of swimming in a Leytonstone pond, travelling America on a tourbus or wandering through Notting Hill after the Carnival. Pastel melodies of simple piano figures are set to glitchy percussion loops, found sounds and poignant strings, with glimpses of wistful harmonium, flugelhorn or swirling synth, while Albarn revisits his childhood home to find the street he lived in now truncated by the M11 link road, or frets about the way that machines insert themselves between us: “We are everyday robots on our phones... looking like standing stones, out there on our own.”
The only moment of outright jollity arrives on “Mr Tembo”, a ukulele-driven song about a baby elephant: fittingly, the gospel choir bringing uplift to its chorus is from the church at the end of his Leytonstone road. It’s a rare moment of extrovert cheer on an intimate, introspective album that takes tentative steps to reveal the soul behind the star.
Albarn appears to be railing against the technological oppression of 21st century living, whether proclaiming that “it’s hard to be a lover when the TV’s on” on ‘The Selfish Giant’ (featuring Natasha Khan, aka Bat For Lashes) 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-conquering Gorillaz material burns bright. The seven-minute sprawl of ‘You And Me’, another Eno collaboration, seems to be mooching along demurely 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. Weeks 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.