Dr Dee Damon Albarn, with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra (Parlophone/EMI)
Pete Townshend once said, “I’d realized I’d become a genius.” Modesty doesn’t work for rock stars, and thank goodness for the rest of us that the Townshends and Damon Albarns of the world put their affluent minds to work with no budgets when it comes to things novel or grandiose. Townshend conceived Tommy and Quadrophenia – rock operas from the Who, and works of, yes, genius.
Dr Dee, the new album from Blur front man and Britpop polymath Albarn, is the studio version of an opera that premiered last summer at the Manchester International Festival. Alas, as an album, this work of early English choral music and dainty bucolic folk, inspired by the life of the 16th-century philosopher and alchemist John Dee, feels more quaint than ambitious. Still, if Dr Dee is less than a masterpiece, it does represent the continuing adventures of a liberated musician.
Using the Google, you might find the term “Afro-pastoral folk opera” when it comes to the nutshell of Dr Dee. Yes, there are a couple of tribal-drum passages from percussionist Tony Allen here. But, really, Femi Kuti funk this ain’t.
Indeed, birds chirp and church bells ring on the opening of The Golden Dawn. Keyboard instruments evoke a Phantom of the Prog-Rock Opera on the moodier passages. Often, Albarn strums acoustic instruments, recalling the gentle melodic touch of Syd Barrett, that late crazy diamond.
I suppose not many people will listen to this thing much at all, even if its modest length makes for an undemanding listen. The lack of the visual drama that would be seen onstage is a big problem. Think of Fleet Foxes in leotards and lutes dancing around maypoles, with soaring sopranos coming and going.
In short, this is unlike anything we’ve ever heard from Albarn, a promiscuous collaborator and creative force who knows no rules. It is the opposite of Song 2, the Blur anthem with the “woo-hoo” hook – one of rock’s all-time greatest exclaims. It isn’t anything like his cartoon-fronted Gorillaz project with the comic artist Jamie Hewlett. (Comic-book writer Alan Moore was originally involved with the staged Dr Dee, but dropped out.)
Drummer Allen was part of the side project band, The Good, The Bad & The Queen, with Albarn and thumb-slap bassist Flea. Albarn has done soundtracks, and Monkey: Journey to the West, a 2007 stage adaptation of a 16th-century Chinese novel, involved Hewlett and Chinese actor-director Chen Shi-zheng.
The immodest Townshend recently said in an interview that another one of his conceptual pieces, Who’s Next from 1971, was “great,” but that it would have been greater if people’s attention spans were longer. Albarn pays no mind to the limitations of others.
Ironically, with this knowingly obscure album, an audience with a short attention span might be desirable. Let’s quickly forget it, and all move on to his next unexpected thing.
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