Damon Albarn has spent over twenty-years moving beyond his Britpop beginnings, and has certainly put in the work. In the decades that have passed since the formation of Blur, he’s served up everything from musicals written in Cantonese to frequent collaborations within Gorillaz‘s revolving doors line-up. Once an avatar for late 90’s Blair-endorsed national optimism, Albarn’s art-rock collective The Good, The Bad & The Queen later released a song entitled ‘Kingdom of Doom’ – the polar opposite of Britpop’s innate patriotism.
And yet despite such creative meandering, it’s tonight – performing 2021’s solo work ‘The Nearer The Fountain More Pure The Stream Flows’ front to back – that might be the moment in the Damon Albarn story where the protagonist finally succeeds in leaping over the fence.
Surprisingly for a man who used to make a living singing about pleasant country houses and jogging in the park, he seems more content than ever. Though it’s not until an hour in that he addresses the London crowd directly, there are smiles, knowing winks and a brilliant, ridiculous moment of avant garde theatre where Albarn toots an enormous bugle in the direction of a fan holding an iPhone aloft.
Still, there’s also an ample dose of the melancholy prevalent in all Albarn’s best songs – the number of which must now run into three figures – as he sits at a grand piano and steers his group through a collection of sorrowful songs inspired by the crags and crevices of the bleakly beautiful Icelandic landscape where he now resides. From the title track onwards – a lament for the passing of frequent collaborator Tony Allen two years ago – these are songs that soundtrack a film we’ll never see, the story of a wounded heart, directed by perhaps this country’s greatest living songwriter.
That raised iPhone might be seen as an affront to the all-enveloping atmosphere Albarn is striving to create – it’s not until halfway in that the lighting engineer adds colour to the mix and there are at least three songs, including the outstanding ‘Royal Morning Blue’, that are played in darkness. Sometimes the atonal soundscapes that break up the setlist don’t always connect, and instead feel like an unnecessary attempt to shroud the singer’s innate brilliance with melody in washy sound-art befitting the Barbican’s imposing galleries. In truth the music more than speaks for itself, and these are mere quibbles. For the lion’s share of the evening this isn’t just a showcase for an authentic national treasure, it’s the sweet sound of freedom.
Damon Albarn played:
‘The Nearer the Fountain, More Pure the Stream Flows’
‘Royal Morning Blue’
‘Darkness to Light’
‘The Tower of Montevideo’
‘Giraffe Trumpet Sea’
‘The Bollocked Man’