For his next trick, Britain’s most protean popsmith turns his attention not to Chinese opera, cartoon rock band or Elizabethan polymath, but to... himself.
Everyday Robots is Damon Albarn’s most personal and revealing album, in which he scans back through memories of his childhood and adolescence to offer an intriguing, if slightly sad, musical self-portrait.
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.