Album: Damon Albarn, "Dr Dee" (Parlophone)
There was a time (for some perhaps, that time was yesterday) when the notion of Damon Albarn creating an actual opera would provoke chortles and guffaws, if not terrified looks and bloody marks on the wall from trying to escape a windowless room via the puny leverage of fingernails.
Maybe it's an indication of how far the man has come, in this possibly only somewhat naff, post-Gorillaz world, as both a taste-maker and an actual artist, that such a notion come fully realized in 2012 is not only not scary at all but sort of ... soothing?
"Dr Dee," recorded with the BBC Philharmonic Symphony and "inspired by the life of John Dee [1527-1608], medical and scientific advisor to Elizabeth I," won't break any new ground for most people. And it's probably unfair to judge a work that is as much about presentation and sitting in a large room surrounded by Serious People solely by its soundtrack. But ignore the lack of visuals and let the chirping birds and lulling meadow frolic of "The Golden Dawn" lead you down the aisle to your seat: it sounds big and important, especially when the slightly sideways, fofreboding church organ lurches into view, getting all into ur meadows and killin all ur doodz. "War begins," Albarn sings on the opera's first real song, which continues the pastoral-but-unsettling motif. "Burn the apple carts."
It must be England he's singing about, because you can feel the damp air and the squalid greenery. Albarn has always been less romantic and more of a realist about his homeland than his spiritual mentor, Ray Davies, but no less cinematic a storyteller, and -- also like Davies -- skilled in his grasp of the complex range of greys buried inside the country's deceptive color palette. So it is that Dee, although obscure to most of us, is a telling and even appropriate choice for Albarn to choose as a subject. Dee, banished from the court for charting Mary's horoscopes, found favor with Elizabeth just years later. He died during the process of conducting seances, hoping to communicate with not only ghosts but the angels themselves. Albarn seems to view Dee as a metaphor, but for what or who?
Maybe "The Moon Exalted," with its lovely female lead vocal (before Albarn comes in to sing about the moon -- which plays a huge role in Dee's occult pursuits; "you are my moon," he sings later in the record, because he can think of no greater thing to tell someone he believes he might love) can tell us, but without the pantomime and interaction of in-person cast members, all we get are snatches of beauty, meaning and lyricism. It will come as no surprise, then, that Blur fans are advised to pick up this album only as a keepsake; Gorillaz fans are asked to keep away entirely.
"The Marvelous Dream" is almost contemporary, almost veers toward pop, but Albarn seems to snatch it back from the brink; he's showing us glimpses through the cracks in the wall of the man we're expecting, glimpses forever just out of reach. It is a somber affair through, lightened only by these occasional sideways glances at the pop star. Eventually you sort of forget that he is one, which almost feels like the point.
But there's not much "fun" about "Dr Dee," even though the effort can be understood -- admired even -- within a larger context, namely that of Damon Albarn producing serious work that must be reckoned with. But there's also reason opera stars don't get their own cable television reality shows, and that is that most people will not or cannot reckon with opera. Albarn has deliberately chosen a difficult medium; degree of difficulty must be factored in automatically. None of this is to say this is not an enjoyable album: the sheer joy of creation is fully apparent throughout "Dr Dee," and just this itself makes the whole effort worthwhile.
Will it sit on your shelf comfortably next to your copies of "Parklife" and "Demon Days"? Maybe. But the other albums will probably eye it warily at first.