Two recent records by seasoned British artists traverse the interconnected themes of technology, loneliness, and love.
Several new political tracts have addressed how technology is changing work and the workplace. Paul Mason says in Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future that automation, amongst other forces, will usher in a new economic era that goes beyond existing capitalism. Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams argue in Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work that governments should introduce a Universal Basic Income to support individuals whose jobs are being replaced by emerging technology.
There has also been a spike in writing about how machines, technology, and the Internet are changing social relationships. Olivia Laing's The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone (2016) describes how twentieth-century artists like Andy Warhol and David Wojnarowicz relied on machines as a crutch for their loneliness. George Monbiot claims that we are entering an "age of loneliness".
Damon Albarn's Everyday Robots (2014) and Hot Chip's Why Make Sense? (2015) explore these prevailing patterns with the power, suggestiveness, and emotional depth that is uniquely possible in music.
Both albums highlight how pervasive technology is, and how it affects us. "We are everyday robots on our phones," intones Albarn on the titular track of his debut solo album. The first song on Hot Chip's Why Make Sense?, meanwhile, has Hot Chip vocalist Alexis Taylor telling us: "When I see the beams of those Huarache lights/I know everything will be alright." Taylor has since said that the "Huarache lights" of the track are shorthand for not just the Nike sneaker line, but also "something modern, something very London". The music video shows a gigantic, flashing, multi-coloured light installation, captured in a single take. Later in the same song, a robot voice croaks, "Replace us with the things/That do the job better", and Taylor sings, "Machines are great but/Best when they come to life."
Loneliness is a product of this dependence on technology, or at least it is never far away from our use of technology, according to these albums. We look like "standing stones/Out there on our own," sings Albarn of our phone use, again on the title track. On Albarn's third track, the theme re-emerges: "If you're lonely, press play," Albarn croons. In Hot Chip's 'Huarache Lights', we hear that "There's nothing to touch and/Nothing to hold." Elsewhere on the album, perhaps more indirectly, Alexis Taylor confesses he "never dreamed" he "would belong" in a "world that's just gone wrong" ('Need You Now'). In other tracks, Taylor speaks of the emotional numbness of a technology-dependent time: "I'm feeling so good/Just can't explain', he sings in 'Started Right', while in 'Cry for You', he says "Never been so out of mind".
The albums - though different in their musical influences and rhythms - also share the view that love may be the antidote to this epidemic of loneliness. Damon Albarn follows the moody, mournful 'Hollow Ponds' and 'Photographs (You Are Taking Now)' with the upbeat 'Heavy Seas of Love'. For Hot Chip, the song 'Love is the Future' (which articulates the joy that arrives "when I'm with you") comes right after 'Huarache Lights'. "The world around refuses" to make sense, Alexis Taylor laments in the album closer - but the suggestion of the album is that love may be the closest thing we find to solace in the midst of this confusion.
The musical choices made by Albarn and Hot Chip in Everyday Robots and Why Make Sense? strengthen and deepen messages about machines, loneliness, and love. The discordant robot voice in 'Huarache Lights' suggests that the rise of technology brings something off-base - maybe even menacing. Jaunty piano on Albarn's 'Lonely Press Play' and 'The Selfish Giant' hints at a world grasping for coherence and resonance in the face of change. Albarn and Taylor's pleading yet soothing voices fill their respective albums with simultaneous sadness and energy.
Albarn and Hot Chip are by no means the only musicians to have explored these themes. Daft Punk (clearly an influence on the track 'Huarache Lights', if not Hot Chip's whole album) offer in their pulsating 2005 track, 'Technologic', a picture of how technology has taken over lifestyle and language: "Write it, cut it, paste it, save it/Load it, check it, quick - rewrite it". Kraftwerk's iconic 1978 album The Man Machine was of course a powerful early evocation of the convergence of humans and robots, with songs like 'Neon Lights' representing an obvious inspiration for Albarn and Hot Chip. And the release of Radiohead's latest album in the past week is a reminder that they too have highlighted tensions between technology and humanity, most notable in 'Fitter Happier', the track from OK Computer in which Thom Yorke used a voice created using his Mac computer's SimpleText software. Damon Albarn has returned to loneliness in Blur's 2015 album, The Magic Whip, through songs like 'Lonesome Street' and 'Go Out' (the latter containing the line, 'I'm getting sad at home/Dancing with myself').
Moreover, these albums offer only one perspective on these themes: the perspective of contemporary white British males, albeit males that - especially in the case of Albarn - have attempted to incorporate other musical traditions.
Nevertheless the albums underscore the pervasiveness of the contemporary preoccupation with technology, work, and loneliness.
As well, and more importantly, Everyday Robots and Why Make Sense? showcase the way that music can add texture and emotional depth to our understanding of these social and economic issues. It is not just journalists, politicians, and academics that are responding to the changing nature of work. Artists, too, are engaged in this enterprise. And, as Damon Albarn and Hot Chip demonstrate through Everyday Robots and Why Make Sense?, sometimes artists' work can strengthen links half-formed in our mind, such as the links between technology and emotional numbness, or the links between loneliness and love.
Albarn and Hot Chip remind us that we are all grappling with a "world that's just gone wrong", a world where they'll "replace us with the things/That do the job better", a world that needs "heavy seas of love".
If you're lonely, press play.
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