Release Date: May 8, 2012
Genre(s): Classical, Opera, Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Alternative Pop/Rock
Record label: Virgin
Music Critic Score
How the Music Critic Score works
On this solo joint, the ever-adventuring Gorillaz and Blur frontman gets together with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra and Nigerian drummer Tony Allen for an operatic salute to mysterious Elizabethan alchemist John Dee. An ambitious and unexpected move, sure, but the mix of period strings, vocal choruses and West African percussion (plus Albarn's gloomy score) makes for a dense term paper. Listen to 'Dr Dee': Related• Photos: Random Notes .
It starts with birdsong and a church bell, and turns into a quirky blend of early English pastoral styles, opera and songs that might have been influenced by the weirdlore and psych-folk movements – but with African percussion and kora added in. Damon Albarn's new album is based on the rise and fall of an Elizabethan mathematician who searched for the secrets of the universe. But you'll need to research his story yourself if you want to understand the songs, as little is explained here.
A funny thing about Damon Albarn's solo debut album Dr Dee is how the black and white cover photograph of Albarn looking a bit wistful and singer-songwritery next to a wall is exactly the sort of thing that somebody in 1995 would have guessed would be on the front cover of Damon Albarn's debut solo album. But this is 2012 and if the last 17 years have taught us anything, it's that the days when Albarn might have been interested in putting out a straight down the line set of Kinks-indebted introspection have passed. And thus it proves: beneath that conventional exterior, Dr Dee is in fact a collection of songs taken from Albarn’s bucolic folk opera of the same name, a work about the life and times of Elizabethan mathematician and occultist John Dee.
Dr. Dee promised to be a challenging work from the outset of the project. Initially it was planned as a collaboration between Albarn, his Gorillaz co-creator Jamie Hewlett, and graphic novel titan Alan Moore. Moore reportedly dropped the project early on but did leave the basic narrative idea, a musical about the life of John Dee, one of Queen Elizabeth I’s closest advisors.
There was a very specific moment in Damon Albarn's career when he decided to think of England for a living. The year was 1992, and Blur were touring the U.S. in support of their underperforming debut, Leisure, a relatively tepid guitar-pop record of vague lyrics and the occasional explosive hook. Missing his homeland and repulsed by the self-serious, omnipresent grunge sound, he returned to England two months later with the intention of making music that was proudly, flagrantly British.
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.
Officially, Dr. Dee is Damon Albarn's first solo album but that's the tiniest misnomer. Ever since Graham Coxon left Blur during the recording of Think Tank, Albarn has been the unquestioned director of his projects, his authoritative stamp evident on Think Tank, all three Gorillaz albums, Mali Music, the Good, the Bad & the Queen, and Rocket Juice & the Moon, so Dr.
Any casual fans wondering what that Gorillaz singer Damon Albarn has been up to since the graphic outfit split last year will probably not find this album the most germane of listens. When you stick the Dr Dee CD into your computer, iTunes laughably categorises it as indie rock. It really isn't. First staged at Manchester's international festival last year, Dr Dee is an operatic work that revisits John Dee, a renaissance man of the Elizabethan era.
It’s initially hard to classify Damon Albarn’s new album, Dr Dee, let alone assess its quality. A stage opera composed by the former Britpopper, it tells the story of Dr. John Dee, the mathematician and alchemist who served as private physician to Queen Elizabeth I, and employs instruments and musical styles of the 16th century. To complicate matters, there are bits of kora and African percussion, along with narrative asides from Albarn delivered in his usual plaintive murmur.
With the clock running on the Blur reunion and Gorillaz on indefinite hiatus due to ‘crayonist differences’, Damon Albarn’s first solo album seems like a chance to truly glimpse one of music’s most adventurous minds. A new era of Albarnism? More like 16th-century Bedlam’s inmates performing a musical adaptation of Dr Faustus.Seems Damon’s ‘this is me’ album will have to wait. ‘Dr Dee’ is his latest foray into operetta, backed by the BBC Philharmonic and choral group Palace Voices and set to be staged at the English National Opera this summer.
Dr Dee might not be the place in Damon Albarn’s canon you want to call home, but what it does provide is one hell of a moody detour. Albarn caters to no one but himself, and with Dr Dee, he proves it. Combining pieces from his collaborative opera under the same title, Albarn blends those compositions with dark, personal folk songs, primarily composed of vocals and a classical guitar.
Damon Albarn’s got his eye on David Byrne’s career, and though he’s far less arch and brittle than Byrne, he’s unfortunately far less of an innovator. Albarn’s more like Byrne the taste-curator than the artist, surrounding himself with fascinations and class in hopes to create a new, revitalized mishmash from old parts. In Gorillaz, his shocking left turn away from Blur and towards beat-collage, he excelled at this, making hits out of the unthinkable: Del the Funky Homosapien, Cibo Matto, a 20-years-older De La Soul and cartoon monkeys.
There's something noble about Dr. Dee, Damon Albarn's latest passion project, a mostly folk record about 16th-century British mathematician and occultist John Dee. Albarn's desire to rescue a critical historical figure (Dee served as advisor to Elizabeth I and once owned perhaps the greatest library in England) from relative obscurity is certainly commendable.
A well-researched soundtrack piece full of memorable melodies. Martin Aston 2012 It’s rare that album research entails digging into the life and times of a 16th-century Elizabethan, but such are the life and times of one Damon Albarn. Second-guessing this man is pointless, given his jumping from cartoon funksters (Gorillaz) to African fusion (Mali Music), and from ransacking dub/jazz/rock/soul infections (The Good, the Bad and the Queen, Rocket Juice & the Moon) to stage adaptations of 16th-century Chinese novels (Monkey: Journey to the West).
"Tell me, Master Kelley, what shall become of me? Shall the name of Doctor Dee live on in everlasting glory, or in perfidious infamy?" "In my scrying, sire, I see many things; a far flung age, where Good Queen Bess sits still upon the throne of England - yet 'tis not our own fair queen at all, and she rules, it seems, in name only. For the land is be-devilled, sire, by a foul pestilence; an upstart minister of two faces, of which one be called Clegge, the lesser of the two; and the other a wretch named Cameron, who hath assumed a power most heinous, and doth trample roughly o'er Britannia's greatest treasures. .