At this point, Damon Albarn has done just about everything. He established himself with Brit-rock band Blur, which will play at the London Olympics this year. He surprised everyone in the late 1990s with his trippy side project turn full-fledged artistic endeavor Gorillaz, aided by artist Jamie Hewlett. He worked with Danger Mouse on the chilled out The Good, The Bad & The Queen and went to Africa with Mali Music and Kinshasa One Two. In March, he messed around with Flea in Rocket Juice & the Moon and scared us all saying that further plans for Blur and Gorillaz are up in the air. But most recently, Albarn has put together an opera about the life of Elizabethan scientist John Dee, entitled Dr Dee. The resulting soundtrack features Albarn alongside members of the English National Opera and the BBC Philharmonic, naturally. While not nearly as accessible as most of his other work, if you are an Albarn fan, Dr Dee does not disappoint.
Dr Dee is interesting because it can’t be completely classified to a single category. It is by no means a pop record, but in between “serious” opera, there are some really beautiful (albeit mellow) pop songs. “Apple Carts” and the wonderful “The Marvelous Dream” are gorgeous efforts by Albarn that wouldn’t have fit on any of his prior releases, and “Cathedrals” is a perfect combination of Albarn’s songwriting and operatic arrangement. You’ll also hear Albarn on a handful of other tracks like “Saturn”, “The Dancing King”, and “O Spirit, Animate Us”, but much of Dr Dee is written and arranged by Albarn without any appearance by him. Rather, the music here is mostly orchestra and Elizabethan-era instruments (“The Moon Exalted” features Albarn singing over some sweet harpsichord) and is very story-intensive. Thus, if you know what you are getting yourself into, Dr Dee can be a really rewarding experience. But if you are expecting a solo album or a new hit single, it sure isn’t here.
Dr Dee is a bit hard to swallow without the context of seeing the opera performed. Listening to the record straight through, the listener gets a bit lost. But that’s not necessarily Albarn’s fault. He hasn’t hyped the record as anything more than it is - the companion to an opera he wrote about an Elizabethan alchemist. From this standpoint, Dr Dee is great. The lyrics tell the story fairly well, though you might need a bit of a backdrop if you really want to get into it. If nothing else, Dr Dee is a testament to Albarn as a songwriter and an artist. The guy knows no bounds, and almost 23 years into his music career, he’s releasing more music than ever (moreover, none of it is crap). Damon Albarn continues to surprise us, and I think that a story about an alchemist who walks the line between pure genius and Hermetic magic is a good parallel to the progress he has amassed in his career.