It’s all been rather mysterious, the end of Blur. One moment Damon Albarn and his reactivated Britpop colleagues were touring and recording new songs, then suddenly … they weren’t. A Japanese festival appearance in January was bruited as their last for the foreseeable future. Talk of a new album has evaporated. Instead Albarn is now popping up with his first-ever solo album, a pointed coincidence.
The singer assembled a new band to debut Everyday Robots at the Rivoli Ballroom. They were a four-piece called The Heavy Seas, praised by Albarn as “fantastic” and introduced by their first names like old friends: drummer Pauli the PSM, bassist Seye, keyboardist and musical director Mike Smith, guitarist Jeff Wootton. Each has links to previous Albarn projects Africa Express or Gorillaz.
You couldn’t fault their musicianship, or the ease with which Albarn slotted in with them. But neither the singer, nor his band, nor the venue – a plush 1950s dance hall, the perfect setting for Everyday Robots’ themes of nostalgia and technophobia – could hide the fact that his new songs are disappointingly slight.
“Lonely Press Play” set the tone, a maudlin opener with a jerky tempo that slowly grew more fluid and soulful, a half-realised sketch. “Everyday Robots” found Albarn at the piano singing glumly about technological alienation, a violin weeping away in the background. In contrast to his usual subtlety, it was all too literal. When the singer crooned “I felt the percussion” in “Hollow Ponds”, a predictable rat-a-tat-tat of drums answered him. The zany ending tacked on to the maundering “Photographs (You Are Taking Now)” seemed designed to silence audience chatter.
Old songs were chosen to fit in thematically. “Tomorrow Never Knows” from Gorillaz found Albarn singing “The digital won’t let me go” amid rumbling dub bass and haunting melodica. The Good, the Bad & the Queen’s “History Song” was an evocation of “Sundays lost in melancholy” by the Thames estuary. Yet these older numbers didn’t really fit in; instead they stood out, a disparity highlighted by a storming version of Gorillaz “Clint Eastwood”, with scene-stealing guest spot from the London rapper Kano.
The show ended with Albarn alone at the piano playing a beautifully weighted rendition of Blur’s “This Is a Low”, his solitude framed by the sound of everyone singing along. The best sad songs contain the possibility of not being sad. Albarn has penned a few of them: but not on Everyday Robots.