James Rowland explores the world of Damon Albarn
If the majority of 46 year old dads were attempting to write an experimental opera that morphed into a family-centric musical, the result would be the auditory equivalent of Bruce Forsyth in a little black dress. However, this is Damon Albarn, no ordinary father, a man whose breathtaking career has spanned three decades and an innumerable range of diverse artistic and musical genres. Albarn fronted the band Blur, forming the southern branch of the much harked back to Britpop scene, which saw the bewildered figure of Manchester transformed to a veritable Mecca for anyone who couldn’t stand the Spice Girls or the apocalyptic resurgence of Cher. The British renaissance spanned the period between the smiths sulking onto the scene in the late 80s and Oasis trading their parkas for a pipe, slippers and rockin’ chair at the turn of the century.
Delving into Blur’s delicious and extensive back-catalogue yields a vast range of refined musical styles, with variety very rarely achieved in popular music. Parklife, from the album of the same name, is melodically so iconic as to be adopted as an anthem to be drunkenly bawled, while lyrically it is a sad eulogy to working class life, flowing with irony. Equally self-contradictory is Coffee & TV from the album 13 which, despite its distinctly dulcet, relaxed air, is in fact coursing with a dark undercurrent of alcoholism and modern oppression. Damon Albarn spearheaded this classy outfit, wearing his own classy Fred-Perry-based outfit. His sombre swagger went on to spawn considerable success – whilst leaving Blur’s integrity uncompromised.
So many of the golden boys of Britpop fell into mediocrity, dragging the out of date, upbeat, simple guitar band into the era of George Bush and Simon Cowell. Oasis front men, the Gallagher brothers, led this spiralling nosedive by supplying their greying fans with overblown reunions and spin off bands that gained acclaim only from their parents. Albarn however was able to buck this trend with a vengeance, through the formation of animated band Gorillaz in 1998 in collaboration with comic artist Jamie Hewlett. Highlighting Damon Albarn’s musical prowess, Gorillaz were essentially a part-time side project which accidentally produced platinum albums and entered the Guinness Book of Records as the most successful virtual band of all time.
Each Gorillaz album is comprised of a highly original concoction, drawing on an unprecedented range of genres. This is partially due to the collaboration-heavy nature of the work, bringing together Albarn, the only permanent member, with a diverse range of artists, including Lou Reed and Little Dragon and, perhaps more notably, hip-hop heavy weights such as De La Soul, Snoop Dogg and Mos Def. Unleashing the creative talent of Damon Albarn into the new musical paradigms made available by these collaborations, yielded a sound previously untouched, not only by blur, but any outfit. Gorillaz gave a body of work which mashed together alternative rock, trip-hop, electronica, dub and pop, with hip-hop coursing through its veins.
The effortless flitting between diverse musical schools by Albarn in a single project is stunning, innovative and highly influential. Solo albums from ageing members of previously distinguished bands have often been clinically traumatising for fans, as the album is realised as a diluted, drab version of the original successful sound – see Julian Casablancas of the Stokes, the bloke from Bloc Party and moping, housewife favourite Sting for further information. Damon Albarn was of course able to shatter this stereotype with the seductively haunting Everyday Robots – released over 25 years after the formation of Blur. Crisp, yet mellifluent, this album is the physical manifestation of Albarn’s uncanny ability to habituate to changing times. It tackles the heavy themes of urban alienation and technological sovereignty with joyous ease. “Stricken in a status sea” resonates with all of us, regardless of how you interpret the meaning.
Everyday Robots is not an album easily pigeonholed, musically and thematically outside even Albarn’s comfort zone, it draws on a multitude of genres, although the ubiquitous combination of reggae, folk and electronica is particularly striking. Though Albarn’s covetable CV extends to eccentric operas, award winning supergroups and production on seriously classy albums, his melancholy demeanour lends itself better to a trendy bookshop owner than the prolific maestro he unquestionably has become.
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