There’s an argument to be made that the history of music has actually been the history of the tools used to make or capture that music, that the fresh and exciting stuff happens just as the technology is invented which allows it to happen. Certainly it’s hard to imagine the sparkling and precise acoustic balladry of the early 70s without hi-fi stereophonic sound, or the rise of hip hop without the benefits of MIDI, samplers and drum machines.
This is the first high-profile album to have been made primarily on an iPad, a labour of exploration that Damon Albarn put together on last year’s Gorillaz tour. Two years ago, it couldn’t exist. Now it does. Does this therefore mean that it represents a stunning step forward in musical creation?
Well no, that’s not really what iPads do. They re-create, in the touchscreen universe, devices which already exist: virtual vocoders, synth emulators, i-theremins and analogue warmth creators. Opening blast Phoner to Arizona is like a potted history of musical electronica – but there’s nothing which carries the sonic hallmark of the tool itself.
Damon himself is a lot easier to spot. Apart from samples or snatches of dialogue, and one exceptional exception, his is the only voice present, his whispery, disengaged ghost hanging over everything. And when he’s good, he’s great. Amarillo darkly tolls like a robot national anthem, Revolving Doors is a melancholy travelogue through a foggy past, Hillbilly Man is two short and very different songs nailed together unceremoniously.
But there are also sketches and doodles, half-formed thoughts like Shy Town and Little Plastic Bags, better left in Damon’s hard drive until he found a decent chorus. Bobby in Phoenix – the exception – is a fried masterpiece; a union between Bobby Womack’s raddled acoustic soul and Damon’s digital heaven which offers a tantalising glimpse of a more collaborative record.
This, then, is an album which could only have been made for a post-iPad world. It opens the door to tantalising, exciting possibilities, but it’s also fragmented, distracted and indulgent. It’s almost like the real thing, but somehow not.
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