Review: Damon Albarn’s Dr. Dee

Damon Albarn: Dr. Dee

Damon Albarn: Dr. Dee (Virgin, 5/8/12)

“The Marvelous Dream”

[audio:|titles=Damon Albarn: “The Marvelous Dream”]

Brit-rock fans may have been more excited to learn that a Damon Albarn-fronted Blur has become an active prospect again, but fans of music in general should be more thrilled to know that he’s been up to a lot more than that. Albarn, as a solo artist and a collaborative one at that, has stirred up some amazing music by delving into Malian blues, scoring the Chinese opera Monkey: Journey to the West, and continuing his hip-hop cartoon group Gorillaz. Now he’s created the soundtrack to an opera based on the life of 16th Century astrologer/mystic John Dee — and it’s beautifully accessible.

Albarn’s music for Dr. Dee — an English opera whose live production debuted in 2011 and goes to London for the Olympics in June 2012 — has been released simply as Dr. Dee, probably so it doesn’t put off non-opera fans, which is a good idea. It is both a continuation of his interests and a challenging excursion into new realms — a modern English opera based on a comic by Alan Moore about an Elizabethan-era mystic and astrologist to the Queen.

On the album, Albarn embraces Elizabethan instruments and compositions, but his influences are myriad. “Watching the Fire that Waltzed Away” feels like a Philip Glass composition performed by The Incredible String Band, and elsewhere, Dr. Dee features African instruments alongside English choral music and wider sounds of the Renaissance.

But Albarn is no dabbler. He has done his research — even studied diaries of Dee’s attempt to communicate with angels. And Dr. Dee is surprising in its emotional impact when Albarn is singing. “Apple Carts” is as close to Blur or Radiohead in tights as we may get and still enjoy it. Albarn loosens up the instincts for authenticity on “The Marvelous Dream,” which feels more contemporary with its hand claps and droning guitars. And throughout, the mysterious music from a distant era allows Albarn to create layers of meaning — referring to both the storyline and the historic character and his own feelings about his English-ness, something he’s never been averse to addressing.

The tunes that try the pop fan’s patience are, as you could guess, the more operatic ones, but as they’re obviously of a piece and contribute to our partial immersion in another era, they’re quite a trip — and a reminder that seen another way, this entire enterprise may be irksome to old-school opera-goers.

Dee brought knowledge to England, but also magic — and the beauty of Albarn’s album is that, as difficult as it sounds, the mystical and the scientific seem to mingle here as if four centuries had been traversed for a few moments. It’s not precise history or anthropology on Dr. Dee (thank god), but it’s a very personal mingling of cultures that Albarn does so well.

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