3.5 out of 5 stars
Between his previous high profile stints as the frontman of Blur, the brains behind funky/techno-cartoons Gorillaz, a member of world music supergroup the Good, the Bad & the Queen and the impetus behind Bobby Womack’s 2012 comeback among many others, it’s startling to realize this is Damon Albarn’s first “pop” project under his own name. Considering the wildly diverse styles the UK musician has dabbled in, often quite successfully, it’s encouraging that he and producer (and XL label owner) Richard Russell have crafted this warm, chilled-out set that rides basically one groove, yet does it exceptionally well.
Albarn time travels back to David Bowie’s Berlin days, keeps the tempos on low boil, and even brings in Brian Eno as a supporting musician to help create primarily keyboard driven music that feels natural and earnest. Melodies are as elusive and hypnotic as the sometimes skeletal backing yet his soulful voice is inviting and intriguing. That’s particularly true of the stark ballad “You and Me” where Albarn sounds so much like Bowie even fans might mistake the two. Lyrics such as “we were walking like zombies hung over/to the church of John Coltrane” are difficult to fathom, yet their amorphous qualities fit the overall approach and seem to have substance even in the most obtuse moments.
Little will reach out and grab you on first listen, but after a few tunes, Albarn entices you to stay for the whole project. The stark cover art implies loneliness and perhaps loss, however even the most stripped down tracks exude a confidence and poise that only an artist as talented and confident as Albarn could create. The album unravels its charms slowly and deliberately and after it’s over you’ll be beckoned back to soak in more of its sublime, beguiling mystique.