Has its moments, but in the end, isn’t medieval life rubbish?
With the clock running on the Blur reunion and Gorillaz on indefinite hiatus due to ‘crayonist differences’, Damon Albarn’s first solo album seems like a chance to truly glimpse one of music’s most adventurous minds. A new era of Albarnism? More like 16th-century Bedlam’s inmates performing a musical adaptation of Dr Faustus.
Seems Damon’s ‘this is me’ album will have to wait. ‘Dr Dee’ is his latest foray into operetta, backed by the BBC Philharmonic and choral group Palace Voices and set to be staged at the English National Opera this summer. It tells the story of Renaissance astronomer John Dee, adviser to Elizabeth I and a man rumoured to have been ensconced in dark secret rituals – so essentially the Jay-Z of his day. Albarn’s gone to all this effort, you suspect, because the title might make people think he’s written an opera about a hip-hop producer. But this merely adds to the perverse fascination of the thing.
Musically, it runs the gamut from divine folk experiments to clunking classical cliché; ‘Apple Cart’ is a beautiful evocation of 16th-century pastoral England as civil war looms, and ‘The Marvelous Dream’ could be a minstrel Sebadoh singing about pillage and God-fire.
Later, though, Albarn fades to a bit-part and Dee’s narrative is lost among baroque falsettos that sound like Gilbert & Sullivan doing The Phantom Of Black Adder II’s House while ripped to the tits on wig powder. Clearly Damon is pleased to be carving a niche in the world of high art, but perhaps ‘Dr Dre The Opera: Nuthin’ But An ENO Thang’ might have served his legend better.