When Damon Albarn announced last May that he was stepping out as a solo artist, the prospects for a new Blur album seemed further away than ever. Add to that a Blur tour of Australasia, scheduled to take place this week, that was inexplicably canned in the lead-up to Christmas, without warning or clear explanation. Recent concerts in Japan, tinged with a sense of closure, seemed to suggest the band might be calling it quits, should Albarn’s solo career take off.
If he was still dancing around the issue, this week's intimate performance at the Sundance Film Festival – where Albarn previewed five new tracks from his upcoming debut solo release, Everyday Robots – suggested the band’s legacy remains vital to any future success.
Treating the invite-only audience to an acoustic session, buoyed by a four-piece string section, the new music still felt remarkably reminiscent of his recent studio work with the band. The set was gentle and reflective.
"Lonely, Press Play" mourned the absence of loved ones and the feeling of isolation. Everyday Robots was, according to Albarn, “inspired by an elephant”, while "Hollow Ponds" referenced key dates in his life, including the 1976 summer drought. “Read into that what you will,” he offered later, when quizzed about its lyrical content. “And let’s not talk about Australia.”
Indeed, despite being affable and engaging during his lightening-quick stop in the ski town of Park City, where Sundance is held each year, Albarn kept frustratingly mum about the future of Blur. He wouldn’t even comment on what his solo plans might be (aside from a just-announced headline slot at Latitude), and whether he’d ever, in fact, record with Coxon and co again.
“I'm going to be promoting this record, I suppose, in one form or another,” he told Rolling Stone, prior to his Sundance performance (an earlier, shorter set also occurred last Sunday, inside the festival’s own Sundance Channel venue). “I don't know how that will completely manifest itself.”
Judging by the five songs he premiered, the solo record – produced with Richard Russell, and due out on April 28 – sounds as good as anything he has put out in the past decade. What’s more, he’s evidently keen to perform it live, together with a clutch of Gorillaz and Blur songs ("On Melancholy Hill" and "To the End" were both dusted off to close his main Sundance set).
Yet North America only really warmed to Albarn through his success with Gorillaz, which in the US easily outstripped anything associated with Blur. When they headlined Coachella last April, there were some who wondered, out loud, “Who?”
In fact, Albarn’s fan base in the States remains pegged firmly under the moniker of cult. A curiosity factor remains – a YouTube spokeswoman claimed “festival-high enquires” when quizzed about Albarn’s main Sundance show at their festival HQ – but it was far from packed when he arrived on stage, just after 11pm, on Sunday night.
Still, there was a logic to the move. Sundance is an increasingly popular spot to test out new material, or merely promote a new upcoming release. Stuart Murdoch reconvened his Belle & Sebastian brand late on Monday night, at the festival’s ASCAP Music Cafe (tying in with his directorial debut, a bouncy musical called God Help the Girl, starring Emily Browning).
Further on up Main Street, Bad Seed Nick Cave also rocked up, for a three-song solo turn at the piano, following the premiere of 20,000 Days on Earth – an extraordinary, abstract documentary about his life and work, featuring a bizarre flurry of cameos, including Ray Winstone and Kylie Minogue.
But it was Albarn who arguably took the biggest risk in coming up to the snow-capped peaks of Utah.
Using Sundance as a launch-pad for his new album was surprising, given the bulk of his fan base lies across the Atlantic. The new music, while exquisitely performed, feels too subtle, too gentle to hold any substantial appeal for North American audiences, which was presumably not the aim of this dash through the snow. For that, he’ll need to craft another "Song 2".