Damon Albarn is a legend. If you don’t know who he is, then I suggest you take a seat. Albarn was the frontman to the great 90’s band Blur, then went on to be immortalized as 2D in the alternative tour de force known as Gorillaz. When he’s not doing both of those things, he can be found doing side project after side project, spreading his musical genius through other acts like The Good, The Bad, and The Queen, and Rocket Juice & The Moon. He has sold hundreds of thousands of albums in his career, soundtracking the past two decades to perfection. And although I will probably not get another Blur or Gorillaz album anytime soon (if ever…[sigh]), it doesn’t mean Albarn will stop making music.
Case in point, his first solo album Dr. Dee; an alternative opera concept album that will get you listening to what is being played more than grooving.
Yes, you read that right.
Damon Albarn’s concept opera follows John Dee, the medical advisor to Queen Elizabeth I. That’s all well and good, but listening to the music that we are presented with doesn’t really show, or process a full narrative (or none that I could pull out). That’s a problem, since there is no visual aspect that helps you understand what’s going on. However, the music that’s in this opera is enough to evoke emotions out of people who have no idea what they are listening to.
“The Golden Dawn” brings the musical ideas of the Baroque period and places them in our ears (as they do throughout the album). This is followed by “Apple Carts,” where Albarn’s lyrics evokes a sense of place, while his tone harks back to his TGTB&TQ days – as it does for most of the album. The next two tracks, “Oh Spirit Animate Us” and “The Moon Exalted,” combines into a sweeping character introduction, as the first guest spot – I mean “conceptual player” – on the album. The woman, who’s name I could not find, blows away Albarn in the singing department, mainly because of her operatic singing style. “The Man of England” also features another operatic singer, a man this time, who’s dark and broading voice helps flesh out the narrative and characters involved in the story. Both singers pop up again, but not a whole lot, of Dr. Dee – but when they do, they outshine anything that Damon brought previously to the table. Let’s be honest though, I’d much rather have Albarn sing his style than try to become an opera singer.
Albarn doesn’t completely nix his past on Dr. Dee. Not only is his iconic voice inflection still in tact, but some songs on this release resembles songs from his bands past. “The Marvelous Dream,” for example, slightly resembles the same beat as “Highway (Under Construction)” off of D-Sides. And the one and a half minute “9 Point Star” could easily be extended into a four-minute jam with De La Soul if Albarn really wanted to. Instead, the 90-second instrumental brings some African-inspired beats into this incredibly European album.
One major problem I had while listening to Dr. Dee was the unclear narrative that we are supposed to follow. Dr. Dee sounds absolutely great, but because there is no outright visual presentation to help you through what is going on. I don’t doubt that Albarn could probably have this commissioned to be performed tomorrow if he really wanted to, but until then, the album just feels a bit faceless.
One thing that I must commend the album for is how beautiful the arrangements are. The operatic, lavish, and gorgeous sounds of all involved makes for a unique and timeless listening experience. Although the album is basically an opera mixed with Renaissance and Baroque stylings, it flows rather well from track-to-track. Dr. Dee evoked memories of musicals that I enjoyed like Sweeney Todd or Les Misérables, instead of me rushing back to my Gorillaz collection – something that I thought would never actually come out of this.
This is one of the hardest albums that I have had to grade. Without a visual aspect (or I guess imagination), Dr. Dee falls a bit flat on first listen. But if you keep returning to it over time, you might feel captivated by the music and the story that it is trying to tell. Gorillaz fans and Blur fans might ignore this album all together, as it really sounds NOTHING like any of the two bands. Instead, Damon and Co. put together an album that is meant to stand alone on the shelves as a mainstream opera album, if there is such a thing. On the other hand, if you don’t know what opera music sounds like, or what a Baroque or Renaissance style refers to, then you might not enjoy the ideas of Dr. Dee. In fact, this might be the perfect album for Music History teachers to pass along to those students who just ignore those time periods all together in favor for what’s out right now.
Final Grade: B
Go Download: The Album (there are no singles here, folks)
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