2 stars (out of 4)
"Everyday Robots" (Warner Bros.) is Damon Albarn's first solo album and also his most personal. It's a soundtrack to a future memoir, with day-in-the-life details coursing through the songs: the serious (his '90s heroin addiction); the serendipitous (the moment he saw a little piece of graffiti on a wall that changed his life and gave Blur the title of its first great album, "Modern Life is Rubbish") and the silly (meeting a baby elephant in Tanzania).
It also includes a fair amount of big-picture what-does-it-all-mean? pondering, in keeping with Albarn tradition. With Blur, he told vivid stories that updated the empire-in-decline narratives of the Kinks' Ray Davies and the Jam's Paul Weller. Now technology has got him feeling alienated, a theme that also underlined his work over the last decade with Gorillaz. But Gorillaz and most of the singer's world-music side projects give off a kaleidoscopic glow. "Everyday Robots" is more monochrome: wistful, brooding and often drab.
The album includes a couple of ringers (Brian Eno, Bat for Lashes' Natasha Khan), but it's largely a collaboration between Albarn and producer Richard Russell. They touch on the wide-screen musical accents of the singer's past – horns and strings; hints of Caribbean and African texture and rhythm – and add oddball percussion, electronic loops and other bits of mostly subdued studio experimentation, including field recordings from the singer's old neighborhoods.
But it moves in slow motion, narrated by what sounds like a middle-age shut-in staring out at the world from his bedroom window and lamenting his species' dreary fate: "We are everyday robots on our phones... looking like standing stones, out there on our own."
There are moments of gray beauty in the way "You & Me" unfolds over seven minutes, from its ghost-like backing vocals to the way steel drums provide a momentarily buoyant bridge between the song's two oceans of melancholy. But the undulating guitar and mournful horn solo on "Hollow Ponds" only underline just how narcotized Albarn sounds.
The album's attempts at shaking up the down-tempo, down-hearted mood fall short: "Mr. Tembo" comes off as a ukulele-led novelty and the would-be anthem "Heavy Seas of Love" never ratchets its gospel vibe past the "lukewarm" setting. Albarn has provided countless moments of musical enjoyment over a career that spans more than two decades. "Everyday Robots" is a rare exception.