If what Damon Albarn says is true, it is time to face facts: following a summertime swansong, we are to be inhabitants of a Blur-free universe. With Gorillaz apparently heading for extinction as well, it would appear that the future for Albarn lies in his more leftfield projects – part-time outfits such as The Good, The Bad And The Queen and Rocket Juice & The Moon, or ambitious one-off projects such as the Monkey opera or the DRC Music collaboration with Richard Russell are the way forward.
‘Dr Dee’ is one of the latter. Conceived last year and premiered in part at 2011’s Manchester International Festival, it is an opera about the titular John Dee – a 16th century mathematician, alchemist and advisor to Elizabeth I who laid down some of the groundwork of modern science, but dedicated the end of his life to studies in the supernatural, including attempts to communicate with angels. Now released as an album, featuring Elizabethan-era instrumentation, the harp-like African kora, and the drums of long-time associate Tony Allen, ‘Dr Dee’ is not, as you will imagine, stuffed with ‘Song 2’s, but you certainly can’t fault Albarn for a lack of ambition. Here’s a quick guide to what lies within.
Birdsong, the sound of a bubbling brook and the chime of church bells open the album on a pastoral note, but simmering church organ and woodwind suggest something more occult is afoot (the title itself apparently being a reference to an early English magical order).
It opens with Damon singing, alone, over chiming finger-plucked guitar. He recently described his mindset as “English melancholy”, and you can certainly hear that here, his voice cracked and soulful, as beautiful as it ever was on the most emotional Blur ballads. “In the kingdom of/The broken heart/The blackbird sings/And the moon it laughs”. He is gradually joined by strings, pipes and picked kora, as the lyrics take a darker tone, a vision of burning apple carts offering a sort of grim omen.
Giddy church organ introduces this religious-sounding piece. “Oh father, we have become/Hallowed by the night/Our demons done” sings Albarn, his voice echoed and then bourn up by a small choir of voices.
A slow but beautifully-played piece, playing with light and shade. It begins in an opera style, a female singer singing “To love another/Would demean my heart”. Albarn appears at the commencement of a second movement, apparently “in character” as Dee and singing about angels over some exquisite kora melodies.
Droning cello and pizzicato string-plucks announce this stern, operatic piece. “I am a man of England/Will you come and play?” asks a male singer, over doomy bell chimes.
Reminding a little of a medieval take on Blur’s quirky instrumental interludes, this is a brief track with a star-gazing Albarn vocal that reminds a little of the dreamy, star-gazing quality of Alex James’ ‘Far Out’ from Parklife.
A one-minute interlude of layered, operatic voices and a spoken-word segment apparently taken from a crackly gramophone record, describing a new monarch ascending to the throne.
A heady acoustic Albarn ballad, with lyrical references to holidays, alcohol and “levitating youth” that “jump around the May Queen”, it’s sort of a 16th Century version of Blur’s ‘Bank Holiday’. Sort of.
Another brief operatic interlude. Probably not destined to be big on This Is My Jam or anything.
A rather plodding opera bit, doubtless rich in narrative exposition, although without the context of performance, it’s a little hard to work out what’s going on. The title refers to Dee’s controversial ‘scryer’, a mystic who helped him summon angels via a crystal ball.
Drum solo! Tony Allen lays down a loose, loping rhythm with a ritualistic quality that slowly, surely builds in pace. This is the sound of John Dee the alchemist, toiling in his laboratory, hoping for some magickal transformation.
Matters are taking on a distinctly occult air. “Rise! Rise!” whispers Albarn over hand-claps and distorted, twanging guitar notes.
A big, operatic vocal piece gives way to a detailed orchestral movement, all florid strings and playful pipes.
Well into opera territory now. Much eccentric singing and soprano flourishes, wildly circling organ motifs and a thumping backbeat that drives the track to a delirious close.
A brief kora instrumental leads into…
… a particularly evocative Albarn track, relatively sparse in terms of instrumentation, but quietly epic in its lyric imagery. “When cathedrals sink into the seas under sand/The ghosts that are left in them/They slip through the hands…” One of the album highlights, no question, and one of the most quietly yearning things Albarn has done in an age.
A final choral set-piece paves the way for…
The album’s twilit closer. Much of ‘Dr Dee’ finds Albarn grappling with notions of English history and folklore, and ‘The Dancing King’ is a final reflection, an orchestrated turn of courtly folk with Damon in bucolic mood: “Across the green fields, a procession grows/We are the out-of-time people of the rose…”
It closes an album that is undeniably ambitious – and probably not always everyone’s cup of tea, particularly if you balk at the sound of opera singers. But ‘Dr Dee’ is sumptuous in its instrumentation, and if you warm towards Albarn’s downbeat, melancholic side, there is much to love here. So don’t, y’know, let all the alchemy put you off.
Damon Albarn is playing at Onefest on April 14. You can pre-order 'Dr Dee' here.