Damon Albarn – Dr. Dee

Damon Albarn is a clever monkey who is never short of an idea. He’s left an indelible mark on popular culture with bands like Blur and Gorillaz, plus his projects with The Good, The Bad & The Queen, Rocket Juice & The Moon and Mali Music. So you’d be forgiven for thinking that there’s nothing this man can’t do. But it seems like all the good ideas in the world are unlikely to make Dr. Dee an accessible project for the masses.

The record is Albarn’s first solo album “proper” (notwithstanding his Democrazy collection of demos from 2003). It is also the soundtrack to the two-hour long opera that he wrote for the Manchester International Festival and is based on the life of John Dee, the medical and scientific advisor to Elizabeth I. The subject was a man born before his time and it’s clearly something that strikes a chord with Mr. Albarn who has continually proven to be a vanguard himself, with no shortage of dramatic and cerebral music forthcoming.

Dr. Dee was originally inspired by comic book author Alan Moore and sees the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra and Choral Vocal Group playing alongside English instruments from the Elizabethan era. These include the recorder and lute plus more exotic ones like the dulcian and shawm. Albarn sticks to his more typical acoustic guitar and producing, and is also joined by his Mali Music collaborator, Tony Allen. On paper the idea of Elizabethan music mixed with afrobeats may sound rather strange, but in the hands of Albarn it is also surprisingly cohesive.

The 18 tracks begin with The Golden Dawn where some organ-like church music is featured alongside some nature offerings like water drops and birds’ chirping. It’s a golden tune that plays out like the aural equivalent of morning breaking. And that’s before a choir chime in for the traditional and wistful folk of Apple Carts.

O Spirit, Animate Us sees the singers at it again and this time they’re doing the answer to the Lord’s Prayer while The Moon Exalted is a sweeping soundscape punctuated by a light and beautiful quality. The latter also includes a real lushness before the dark folk of A Man Of England and then Saturn sounds like a number by The Good, The Bad and The Queen.

On The Marvellous Dream you can’t help but look closely at the lyrics and see some parallels between Albarn’s life in 2012 as he contemplates his own revival (with Blur?) or the aforementioned “dream”. But the answer could be found in the following, Preparation where some pattering drums signal a return back to Africa where Albarn will likely be this generation’s answer to Paul Simon rather than any continuance of the pretence of “Britpop God”.

Dr. Dee sees Damon Albarn – like the record’s namesake – walking a fine line between the dark arts, pretension and common practice. This complex collection of frankly odd, pastoral folk is obscure yet bold; a higgledy piggledy set that is at times a pure mess of traditional English ideas, afrobeat numbers and some more archetypal folk musings. Many fans will see it as throwaway and that there is still room for a definitive solo album by Albarn with more digestible chunks of Britpop, rock or whatever else he feels like dabbling in on that particular day.

In the meantime fans will have the opportunity to ponder the many different ideas on offer here and there are moments of rolled gold to be found amongst the cinema-scopes, melody, chanting, religious tomes, impressionist lyrics and alright classic melodrama. You’ve gotta commend Albarn for combining such great and ethereal ideas in such a sophisticated and literate way, but there’s no denying that for some fans Dr. Dee won’t be what the doctor ordered at all.