Photo: Linda Brownlee

Primer is The A.V. Club’s ongoing series of beginners’ guides to pop culture’s most notable subjects: filmmakers, music styles, literary genres, and whatever else interests us—and hopefully you. This installment: Damon Albarn.

Damon Albarn 101

Any conversation about the mercurial singer-songwriter Damon Albarn begins with Blur. His longest-running outfit—whose hotly anticipated comeback album, The Magic Whip, will be released this week—not only launched Albarn’s career in the early ’90s, it cemented his position as one of the most recognizable and vital voices of his generation. It didn’t start out that way, though. Blur’s 1991 debut album, Leisure, is a brisk and infectious affair, but it didn’t quite commit to either the dance-happy sounds of Madchester (“There’s No Other Way”) or the trippy swirl of shoegaze (“She’s So High”). Bouncy and boyish, Albarn didn’t stand out as either a vocalist or a songwriter—but that changed on 1993’s Modern Life Is Rubbish. Ambitious and sumptuous, the album embraced the British rock tradition stretching back through The Jam, David Bowie, and The Kinks—and a time when most of the British pop world was focused firmly on the future.

Paradoxically, Blur’s anachronistic vision became the future. Albarn’s partnership with Blur’s genius guitarist Graham Coxon yielded 1994’s Parklife and 1995’s The Great Escape, two equally astounding albums that crystallized the emerging movement of Britpop—a celebration of England’s rich musical legacy that refused to homogenize its worldview for global consumption. Britpop was proud at best, myopic at worst; Albarn is one of the few Britpop artists to openly acknowledge and explore this troublesome dynamic in song, using sly humor and satirical storytelling on classic tracks like “Parklife” and “Country House” to distance Blur from the Britpop pack while becoming one of its biggest emblems.

Albarn, Coxon, and crew made that distance official in 1997 with the release of Blur, which incorporated American indie-rock scratchiness and stadium-sized anthems—in the process producing its biggest Stateside hit, “Song 2.” The album 13, released in 1999, showed Albarn’s increasing interest in experimental textures and a broader palette of genres, yet it resulted in another hit single, the gospel-tinged “Tender.” With band tensions running high, Albarn wasn’t able to turn 2003’s rambling Think Tank into a coherent whole—and that marked a long hiatus that lasted until The Magic Whip, a disc that finds Albarn settling comfortably back into his role as post-Britpop frontman, figurehead, and wry social commentator.

Intermediate work

As Blur slowly wound down in the late ’90s and early ’00s, Albarn found a willing new outlet for his larger concepts and sprawling scope. Gorillaz was formed as a loose collective centered around Albarn and Tank Girl creator Jamie Hewlett, and it remains such—a testament to Albarn and Hewlett’s innovative idea of a fictional band that appears in videos as animated characters, with guest artists also assuming alter egos. The project’s self-titled debut (along with an arresting debut single and video in the form of “Clint Eastwood”) appeared in 2001, and the mask Albarn sang behind allowed him to indulge a more abstract, pop-culture-scavenging lyrical approach—and the chance to hone his plainspoken voice into a more stylized and poetic instrument. Better yet, Gorillaz became a sample-based, cosmos-sized canvas on which Albarn could scrawl with abandon, resulting in a truly polyglot sound that mixed genres—pop, dub, hip-hop, punk, psychedelia—while refusing to admit that any distinctions existed in the first place.

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Gorillaz’s missing-link aesthetic worked beautifully with the band’s ever-expanding mythos, which grew to include storylines and a cast of characters (not to mention collaborators ranging from The Clash’s Mick Jones and Paul Simonon to Del The Funky Homosapien and Neneh Cherry). The group’s second album, 2005’s Demon Days, resulted in its biggest hit to date, the De La Soul-assisted “Feel Good Inc.”; it also established a narrative arc that bridges all Gorillaz album, including 2010’s Plastic Beach and 2011’s The Fall. Playful, populist, apocalyptic, and elaborately conceptual, Albarn’s work with Gorillaz prove him to be just as chameleon-like as one of his heroes, David Bowie, only in a way that harnesses 21st-century technology not as a novelty, but as a fact of existence, for better or worse.

Advanced Studies

Blur maintained a respectable release schedule during the lion’s share of its existence, but Albarn’s output outside of Blur has been downright prolific. In addition to Gorillaz, he’s joined forces with an eclectic array of collaborators, most notably Paul Simonon, The Verve’s Simon Tong, and Fela Kuti drummer Tony Allen in The Good, The Bad & The Queen. The group’s self-titled debut from 2007 remains one of Albarn’s most lush and intricate works, a loose, carnivalesque concept album that combines the vastness and atmosphere of art-rock with strains of English folk, post-punk, and melancholy pop. His forays into world music, including the 2002 album Mali Music (with Afel Bocoum and Toumani Diabaté) and 2013’s Maison Des Jeunes (with Africa Express) feel more like curiosity-compelled jams than fully realized statements. Similarly, his 2012 team-up with Allen and Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea, Rocket Juice & The Moon, is a rubbery, loopy workout that works better on paper than in execution. But these tangential releases reflect Albarn’s undimmed restlessness, as well as his willingness to go out on a limb and submerge himself in collective composition and improvisation.

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For such a bold songwriter and performer with both reams of critical acclaim and millions of records sold, Albarn took a long time to fully, officially go solo. That album, Everyday Robots, didn’t come until 2014—and it didn’t contain any surprises. Instead, the disc summed up so much of what Albarn had said and done throughout his quarter-century career: wiry beats, dreamy ambience, subtle shading, off-kilter hooks, retro-futurist hauntology, and a voice that’s both warmly approachable and intellectually aloof. But there had been hints of his solo identity before—curiously enough, in commissioned work for stage and screen, such as his exquisitely weird soundtrack (with Michael Nyman) for Antonia Bird’s 1999 film Ravenous. His largest production to date, however, is the orchestral, genre-spanning soundtrack to Dr Dee, a musical he co-created with Rufus Norris that recounts the life and occult beliefs of the infamous, 16th-century mystic. It’s a far cry from the bubblegum pop of Blur’s early hits like “There’s No Other Way”—but considering Albarn’s staggering range and elusiveness over the decades, it makes perfect sense.

The Essentials

1. Blur, Parklife (1994)

Like a pop-art collage converted into music, Parklife flaunted Blur’s panoramic view of British pop—from music hall to punk club to dance floor—while giving Albarn a mega-selling platform from which to ponder, pontificate, and poke gleeful fun.

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2. Gorillaz, Demon Days (2005)

Albarn’s multimedia lark officially became a juggernaut with Demon Days, which solidified Gorillaz’s popularity while delving deeper into Albarn’s obsessions: symphonic sweep, street-market bedlam, cool minimalism, and meta-pop spectacle.

3. Blur, Blur (1997)

The last great album from Blur to date is its self-titled full-length, a relatively unkempt disc full of massive riffs, tattered edges, fuzzed-out anthems, and Albarn and company’s passionate desire to shed the albatross of Britpop.

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4. The Good, The Bad & The Queen, The Good, The Bad & The Queen (2007)

The Good, The Bad & The Queen’s eponymous album is a love letter to London, only it’s a conflicted kind of romance that shivers with muted folk, mutant pop, and Albarn’s growing sense of cinematic arrangement and scale.

5. Damon Albarn, Everyday Robots (2014)

Albarn’s cleverness and experimentalism have given him an air of brainy reserve, and his first true solo album, Everyday Robots, does nothing to dispel that; instead it hauntingly traffics in alienation, claustrophobia, and technological remove.

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