When you think of Damon Albarn, the first thoughts that probably spring to mind come adorned with Union Jacks and chip papers floating through the wind, as ‘90s revellers all go hand-in-hand through their parklife or follow the herd down to Greece (… on HOLIDAY!). Albarn and Blur of course found fame and acclaim by documenting real British life in the ‘90s, but he’s spent so much of his career since (arguably a more celebrated and ongoing purple patch) gazing elsewhere.
While his work with supergroup The Good, The Bad & The Queen looked at life on this soggy rock in all of its 21st century post-Cool-Britannia, Brexit-soaked gloom, Albarn’s music is so often preoccupied with travelling much further afield. Take his collaborative Africa Express project or his psychedelic trips with Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea and the late, great Tony Allen as Rocket Juice & The Moon — hell, his animated art-pop scamps Gorillaz even exist in a whole other universe of their own making.
When Albarn re-emerged on the Glastonbury livestream Live At Worthy Farm back in May, many might have expected a greatest hits set of Pyramid Stage-friendly Britpop bangers. Those who managed to actually log on to watch it after some nightmare technical issues were instead greeted with a new mullet and some new songs. Opening his set with the title track of his second solo album ‘The Nearer The Fountain, More Pure The Stream Flows’, Albarn sang of a time when “youth seemed immortal, so sweet it did weave heaven’s halo around”. ‘Parklife’, this obviously ain’t.
Albarn has been feeling contemplative recently and in need of a little escapism. Who can blame him? “I have been on my own dark journey while making this record and it led me to believe that a pure source might still exist,” he told NME when announcing the record back in the summer. “I just felt like the beginning of this year was so grim and I had to do something to lift me out of those, I wouldn’t call doldrums, but storms”. Sound familiar?
To escape the lockdown blues of staring at the same four walls and baking banana bread, Albarn found a project to finish. Back in 2019, he was commissioned by Lyon’s prestigious Fête des Lumières to present, well, whatever the hell he wanted. He chose to work with Reykjavik’s artistic community to create some music that was a reaction to and reflection of his time daydreaming while gazing out of his holiday home window at the Icelandic landscape. When the virus brought the world to a halt, Albarn called up some old pals (former Verve guitarist Simon Tong and composer Mike Smith) and set about turning these recordings into a more formal pop album — or, as he puts it, “a cohesive meditation about particles, now and the future”. Of course.
Imagining where said particles on the wind might travel, Albarn told us how his imagination took him from Iceland to Montevideo, Iran and Devon. As a result, the record takes in a diverse sonic journey. The opening title track is a mournful but warm introduction of soft strings and Albarn at his most feeling, before the spectral and gossamer post-rock of ‘The Cormorant’ has him asking the question that crossed all of our minds last year: “Am I imprisoned on this island?” We’re then taken far away by the dislocating dissonance of ‘Combustion’ – which combines some jovial melodies with arty jazz sounds that nod to Bowie’s final ‘Blackstar’ period – and the filmic mix of strings and oceanic noises on the blissful ‘Esja’.
While you’ve got plenty of floaty cinematic loveliness with the likes of ‘Giraffe Trumpet Sea’, this is not a Sigur Rós album. For all the spectral beauty, there’s plenty of classic Albarn on here for fans to get lost in. ‘Royal Morning Blue’ will find a place in the hearts of Gorillaz fans with its effortless meeting of horns, synths and modern beats, while the swooning waltz of ‘Darkness To Light’ carries that same romance as Blur’s’ To The End’.
Closing with the subtly triumphant ‘Polaris’, which provides a helping hand to guide through life “if you get blown off course”, and the blissful ‘Particles’, which pays homage to love being the only anchor and living in harmony with nature, the record ends in a place of peace after some time well-travelled.
Considering it was made during a time when we couldn’t go anywhere, this album is at worst a fittingly scenic trip through the places that inspired it, and at best a fresh new sonic chapter for Albarn and a wonderful way for you to leave all the nonsense behind; blissfully reminded that there’s a beautiful world out there. Then be happy for the rest of the day, safe in the knowledge there will always be a bit of your heart devoted to it.
Release date: November 12
Record label: Transgressive Records