The world of Elizabethan court magician Dr John Dee is a long way from Blur, but Damon Albarn sounds very much at home on this spellbinding new project
Damon Albarn has two gigs on the go this summer. While most of the attention is trained on Blur’s Olympics concert at Hyde Park – and the will-they-won’t-they speculation about a new album (latest: they won’t) – his opera Dr Dee gets a second run at English National Opera as part of the Cultural Olympiad, having debuted last year at the Manchester International Festival.
What strange alchemy is this? Dr Dee is a pretty far-out undertaking, even for a musical buccaneer like Albarn whose adventurous catalogue already includes a cartoon supergroup, ambitious African ensembles and the oriental-flavoured opera Monkey: Journey To The West.
This time round, the Britpop renaissance man has absorbed himself in the realm of Elizabethan music to explore the intriguing figure of a fellow polymath.
John Dee was an original Renaissance gent from the court of Elizabeth I – a mathematician and magician, astronomer and astrologer who, according to Albarn, “walked a very fine line between the dark arts and acceptable practice”. Dee is said to have been the inspiration for Christopher Marlowe’s Dr Faustus and the ambiguous character of Prospero from The Tempest.
His life story is a classic tale of rise and fall but, rather than tie himself in knots with a full autobiography, Albarn focuses on Dee’s later life, particularly his undoing at the hands of his nemesis Edward Kelley, a psychic whose message from the angels was that he should share Dee’s wife.
Just don’t expect to divine all this from the soundtrack album. Inevitably, some narrative clarity is lost without the accompanying visuals of the performance and Albarn is not inclined to help out with explanatory sleevenotes.
Instead Dr Dee, the album, is best enjoyed as an exotic expansion on Albarn’s pastoral folk leanings, employing period instrumentation which sounds well integrated rather than an outright Greensleeves pastiche. Tentative comparisons have already been drawn with the elegiac Englandshire he portrayed in The Good, The Bad & The Queen. GBQ band members Tony Allen and Simon Tong also contribute to this project, the former bringing a subtle dusting of African percussion to the early music party. If you have ever hankered after the musical marriage of the lute and the kora, pull up a chair.
The album begins with birdsong, recorded at daybreak in Dee’s old ’hood at Mortlake (which tells you more about Albarn’s immersion in his work than the particular quality of the dawn chorus in the Thames Valley). The Golden Dawn makes an atmospheric, sinister curtain raiser, with a wheezing harmonium and foreboding organ backdrop which is threaded through the album. Being an opera, there are bursts of beautifully keening soprano on The Moon. Then there’s the exalted and crisp baritone enunciation with just a touch of malevolence in the rumbling tone of A Man Of England.
Scottish countertenor Christopher Robson plays Kelley with eerie glee, but there is nothing from the character of Dee himself – a non-singing role in the stage production – unless you count Albarn as his mouthpiece.
Mainly it is Albarn’s hangdog voice all over the album that bears his name, conveying a plaintiveness which has been such a natural fit for him throughout his career, whether in Blur, Gorillaz or The Good, The Bad & The Queen (he even managed to squeeze a lovely slice of pop melancholia into the space jazz odyssey of his recent Rocket Juice & the Moon collaboration). Inevitably, for a work inspired by an astronomer, he slips in an ode to Saturn, the melancholy planet, while the pagan invocation O Spirit, Animate Us is uttered with a heavy heart.
On the beautifully measured and melodic Apple Carts, Albarn is wistful in Wiltshire, singing of broken hearts and blackbirds, evoking the calm before the storm, the rural simplicity contrasted with the babble of ideas at court. Ancient and modern, town and country also collide on The Dancing King with its reference to “the green fields of recession”, while The Marvelous Dream speaks of lunar cycles and May queens over resonating acoustic guitar and handclaps.
These pockets of pretty pastoral pop are satisfying in their own right, even whetting the appetite for a possible solo album which is not part of some grand scheme.
But that is not to dismiss the meticulously wrought connective tissue on this recording, such as the percussive interlude of Preparation and 9 Point Star, the noble choral resonance of Tree of Beauty, the medieval polyphony of Coronation and unsettling mischief of Temptation Comes In The Afternoon, before the journey ends, as it began, with soothing birdsong and rippling water.
Dr Dee was presumably not what the Brit Academy had in mind when they awarded Blur the Outstanding Contribution to Music Award earlier this year but, even as a partial glimpse of a bigger project, it adds another innovative, imaginative string to Albarn’s bow.
Damon Albarn: Dr Dee