Holding a tinfoil lightning bolt and wearing a cotton beard, a teenaged Damon Albarn starred in a school production of the operetta Orpheus In The Underworld in the early ’80s. “Damon was Zeus,” remembers Albarn’s music teacher, speaking to The Observer in 2009, “which just about says it all.” Since that mythic beginning, Albarn has never stopped using props and masks. As the frontman of the pioneering Britpop group Blur, he’s sung from the perspective of a multitude of characters. As 2D of the virtual outfit Gorillaz, he’s an animated avatar come to life. But unlike, say, David Bowie or Peter Gabriel—blatantly thespian artists who have influenced him to nominal degrees—Albarn has maintained a relatively down-to-earth aura. That’s partly because he takes far more inspiration from quintessentially English songsmiths such as Ray Davies and Paul Weller, masterful storytellers who tend to cloak their dramatic conceits in more grit than glitter.
There’s nothing down-to-earth or gritty about Albarn’s Dr Dee, a new opera based on the infamous 16th-century alchemist John Dee. Albarn composed Dr Dee with stage director Rufus Norris, and graphic novelist Alan Moore was originally tapped to write the libretto. When Moore dropped out, Albarn helped pick up the slack. It isn’t Albarn’s first dalliance with the stage as an adult; recently he’s contributed to the productions of Monkey: Journey To The West and It Felt Like A Kiss, not to mention Manchester Opera House’s 2006 recreation of Gorillaz’s Demon Days album. But Albarn’s involvement in Dr Dee is much more front and center. His name is at the top of the opera’s companion album, which hasn’t happened since his 2003 solo debut, Democrazy. And that was just a collection of low-key demos given a limited release.
Albarn’s reluctance to make a proper solo album at this point in his 22-year career—a reluctance that has yet to plague Blur guitarist Graham Coxon, an incredibly prolific solo artist—hasn’t abated with Dr Dee. Anyone who’s been anticipating a conventional, semi-confessional solo outing from Albarn will have to keep waiting; even more than usual, Albarn hides behind costumes. On Dr Dee’s “Apple Carts,” he certainly teases, though. Winsome, ticklish, and full of acoustic pluck, it sets the tone for the rest of the disc’s skeletal folkiness. “In the kingdom of the broken heart / A blackbird sings / and the sun, it laughs / As war begins,” coos Albarn, his mood veering from pastoral to portentous in the soft spaces between breaths. The album then slows to an ominous crawl on the Fairport Convention-like “Cathedrals,” in which sighing flutes and patches of emptiness hover over Albarn’s cracked croon—one of the most immediately recognizable voices of his genre and generation, only cast against a backdrop of vintage English folk-rock.
That vocal anchor loses traction in “Coronation,” where Albarn steps back from the lead. Instead, a drifting, awe-inducing choir dissolves into an eerie coda of cascading harp and spoken-word samples. While only an interlude, it’s the first jarring reminder that Dr Dee is not an Albarn solo disc in the orthodox sense; it’s meant to complement a longer storyline and accompany a stage production, drawing attention to itself only in brief bursts. That storyline is impossible to fathom from the ghostly music alone, but in a sense, that cryptic aura fits the mystery of Dee himself. Born in 1527—and, like Albarn, drawn to the theater while a schoolboy—Dee rose to become an advisor to Queen Elizabeth I after making lasting innovations in mathematics, cartography, astronomy, and philosophy (both natural and otherworldly). Since then he’s become a legendary figure recognized by scientists and occultists alike. But he suffered for the many roles he played. He endured a number of reversals throughout his long life before dying outcast and penniless—which inspired Albarn to fictionalize Dee’s life with an admittedly clichéd twist, the Faustian bargain.
Regardless of how contrived that premise appears on paper, Albarn owns it. The darkness of Dee’s degenerating predicament creeps and accumulates throughout the album like the slow wrath of a medieval pestilence. The sinister undertow of bowed cello on “The Dancing King” is sweetened by bird chirps and the patter of rain; it washes away Albarn’s voice, leaving a full two minutes of ominous woodland serenity. He remains absent in “Edward Kelley”; the song is sung instead by cast member and countertenor Christopher Robson, whose haunting falsetto floats through a disembodied chamber arrangement. Albarn’s voice, while far from abrasive, is downright gravelly by comparison. Unfortunately, Albarn recedes farther from the forefront as Dr Dee progresses. Instrumental interludes such as “The Golden Dawn” and “A Man Of England” may suit the stage production beautifully, but their dour ambience turns to a murky soup on record.
When Dr Dee shines, though, it blinds. “The Moon Exalted” is a sumptuous, six-minute, multi-movement piece in which the cast joins Albarn. As delicately jazzy as Pentangle, the track’s rich, modal folk soars on heavenly harmonies that dip exhilaratingly into frigid minor keys. “Watching The Fire That Waltzed Away” brings a swirling, syncopated African influence—long an obsession of Albarn’s—to the mix. Although he has an entire track to himself (the loping, tension-building “Preparation”), master percussionist Tony Allen—who most recently collaborated with Albarn in the loosely funky Rocket Juice & The Moon—sticks to understatement, his playing more impressionistic than forceful. That is, when Allen plays at all; the majority of Dr Dee bobs along on drumless pulses, a foggy apparition against a foggier landscape. The mise en scène is more metaphysical than tangible, mirroring the intricate web of ideas, energies, magic, and transmutation that makes up Dee’s mystical worldview.
Conveyed more atmospherically than literally, Dr Dee’s pervading theme is one of restless, reckless ambition. Across decades, Dee obsessively chases a multitude of disciplines and passions, and that obsession takes a heavy toll. He ultimately succumbs to his inability to remain still and find contentment—always reaching for some new esoteric knowledge or transcendental state, willing to sacrifice all he's gained along the way. Perhaps Albarn sees some of himself in Dee. In an interview last month in The Guardian, he squashed hopes that Blur’s upcoming concert during the Summer Olympics might lead to a more lasting reunion. Even the future of Gorillaz—a group just hitting its prime—is in doubt, thanks to friction between him and the project’s other prime mover, Jamie Hewlett. That leaves Albarn, now 44, in a curious position: a widely loved and still relevant pop star typecast as a perpetual artistic itinerant.
The sensible path forward would be a solid, stable solo career. Such a thing could possibly materialize with Albarn's next, yet-to-be-named solo album. But it’s not likely. Last year he told Q that the upcoming disc has been inspired by his daughter’s taste in contemporary, club-centric pop, particularly its “homogenous” quality: “I’m writing about an empty club. Empty club music,” he explains without really explaining. Again, he’ll be approaching his music from an obscure perspective rather then head-on. Like Dee, Albarn’s own skin seems to make him itch. It’s as if he’s a precocious drama kid all over again, gluing on beards and throwing lightning bolts from the school stage. Only with the exquisite, hazily-focused Dr Dee, Albarn has succeeded in alchemically—if not perfectly—transforming cotton and foil into silver and gold.