(Planet Me)
Tuesday, November 25, 2014
 
DAMON ALBARN London Royal Albert Hall 16th November 2014
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Twenty five years after he first emerged, Damon Albarn, at last – at long fucking last – strikes free and is just himself. I've tired of Albarn hiding behind useless and distracting psuedonyms, such as Gorillaz, The Good The Bad The Queen, Rocket Juice And The Moon, Mali Music, Monkey, and so on, and tired quickly of his endless musical schizophrenia, whereby he forms bands of capable musicians for a year or so, then callously jettisons them for the next thrill, throwing away his past, and to me, showing neither loyalty or consistency. I'm all for musical evolution and creativity, but ultimately, everytime Albarn does something, I dread the realisation that he's wearing a stupid disguise, or pretending to be a 16 year animated Japanese schoolgirl, or hiding behind a preposterous top hat. Why the art school pretence? Why can't he just put his name on a band, keep the same band going for longer than a one-album-tour cycle, and simply just be himself?

Well, here it is. And at last, Albarn fans aren't watching him ignore his past. This weekends shows – his first headline appearances at the prestigious Albert Hall – sees his band – bloated beyond all recognition into a point where, at one point, there are 18 people on stage, revolving around a capable core of guitar/bass/drums/keyboards, but also a trumpet player, Graham Coxon of Blur, Brian Eno, two guest rappers for the Gorillaz songs, a couple of imported men for a 10 minute world interlude from his largely redundant Mali Music album, and something like 8 backing vocalists from a community church choir. And all of it is just noise : the most effective moment is when he casually sits alone, at a piano, and delivers a spellbindingly effective voice-and-piano version of Blur's “Out of Time” that is effectively the high point. What becomes clear from the 5 song miniset of Blur material (“Out of Time”, “All My Life”, “End Of A Century”, “The Man Who Lost Himself”and “Tender”) is that to an extent, the audience enjoys – but never loves – his more obtuse newer stuff, but loves the moments where he cuts through all the pretence, bluff, and bluster in favour of a form of honesty and unclouded emotional communication. The minute or so where Graham Coxon freewheels his way through the end of “The Man Who Lost Himself”, and the hall erupts into a gorgeous cacophony of noise shows that Albarn needs a foil, a counterbalance to ensure he remains in some way tethered to reality and doesn't get lost out there on his own in a selfmade world of instrumental noodling and nonsense lyrics.

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Sure, the bits where he sings Gorillaz songs from the depths of the crowd, high fives a man in a suit, and hugs strangers is showmanship, and people are singing and dancing, but a song like “Tomorrow Comes Today” is lyrically empty, a collection of words thrown together with no real undercurrent – and the audience sing and dance and love, but how can they feel? The songs, drawn equally from most parts of his work, with eight Gorillaz songs, five Blur songs, two from both Mali Music and The Good The Bad & The Queen as well as eight from his solo record, represent an overall important body of work from the sixteen 'proper' albums he has released (and the countless other best ofs and several b-sides assortments). But in this context, his band manage to mostly bludgeon them into an occasionally uncomfortable middleground of throbbing PiL-ish bass, clumpen drums, and overblown backing vocalist histronics. Which isn't to say I didn't like it, and I didn't enjoy it – just that it could have been better with the aid of more musical restraint. Then again, this is the first thing Albarn has felt comfortable attaching his own name to solely. But perhaps less is more, and he doesn't need 17 people on stage, but 4.

But it is, undoubtedly, a strong artistic identity. There's a compulsion there to create, sometimes in the absence of anything worth creating, and Albarn would probably be an annoying overachiever in a different workplace, even if he couldn't play guitar. At least he provides gainful employment to musicians. But what happens next is the test.Does Albarn hide behind a mask and another identity as he cranks out yet more bluster, or does he stand on his own name again?

And frankly, anyone who writes a song about a happy elephant really needs to take a long hard look in the mirror. The one without drugs chopped out on it.

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Spitting Out The Demons –
Lonely Press Play –
Everyday Robots –
Tomorrow Comes Today –
Slow Country –
Kids With Guns –
Three Changes –
Bamako City –
Sunset Coming On –
Hostiles –
Photographs –
Kingdom of Doom –
You & Me -
Hollow Ponds –
El Manana –
Don't Get Lost In Heaven –
Out of Time –
All Your Life –
End Of The Century –
The Man Who Left Himself –
Tender –
Mr Tembo –
Clint Eastwood –
Feel Good –
Heavy Seas Of Love

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