Damon Albarn is a workaholic in the truest sense of the word. In addition to fronting prolific projects Blur and Gorillaz (with fairly frequent releases) and a collaborative supergroup The Good, The Bad and The Queen, he released an album in March with Flea and afrobeat progressive Tony Allen entitled Rocket Juice & the Moon. Oh, and he just put out a solo album under his own name as well.
Albarn’s latest solo work, Dr Dee, is a concept album revolving around the life and work of John Dee, enigmatic philosopher, alchemist and advisor to Elizabeth I. Dee’s influence is more than notable: his studies as a mathematician eventually defined how we currently measure years and Dee himself was immortalized in Shakespearean works. The album sees a wild shift from the grim “Kingdom of Doom” on The Good, The Bad and The Queen’s self-titled, which colored a muddled portrait of England with grime picked up from Dalston. The homage is something so quintessentially English, it propels Albarn into a completely different realm as a musician.
Forget anything you know and love from Albarn’s heavy contributions to Gorillaz, Blur and The Good, The Bad and The Queen. Instead cue flutes and church organs, lilting vocals and frigid violins. Instrumental opener “The Golden Dawn” features swelling church organs and majestic orchestral builds, an unsettling precursor to the historical elements seeping into the album. Languidly moving “Oh Spirit Animate Us” could very well be a church hymn, Albarn’s choral verses backed by a somber organ’s background hum. “The Moon Exalted” burns like a candle dripping over a wooden table, melting with ethereal female vocals waxed over violins and acoustic guitar. Baritone vocalist on “A Man of England” sounds like a bonafide track from a period piece, chilling and strange.
In theory, it's an incredibly ambitious work. The overarching flaw of Dr Dee is actually from Albarn’s distinctive vocals. While incredibly malleable and multifaceted, they just don’t pair with gloomy bells and plucking violins. Objectively the musicianship is good, very good. Albarn’s breathy vocals are never short of appealing. Yet backed with the orchestral sounds, it jars the listener to the point of confusion. The drastic divide between the Elizabethan era and classical orchestra sounds and Albarn’s repertoire as a multifaceted frontman is too deeply divided -- it just sounds plain wrong.
Regardless, maybe this album is your particular brand of Earl Grey. If you enjoy church hymnals, tabernacle choirs, tunes from the Elizabethan era and all things Stratford-upon-Avon, you’ll pleasantly enjoy Dr Dee’s attempt at a modern interpretation of the ancient, packing a lost piece of history into 2012. This writer will take two cups of coffee, black, and blast Demon Days all the way east to Shoreditch.