Rating: 3.25/5Alchemy has long been a part of Damon Albarn’s work. A Britpop notable while fronting Blur in the ‘90s, Albarn has gone on to meld eclectic musical performances with 2D virtual band Gorillaz and craft subsequent world music collaborations with renowned Nigerian drummer Tony Allen in Mali Music and most recently with Rocket Juice & the Moon. With that in mind, it should come as no huge surprise that Albarn would release Dr Dee, an opera about an Elizabethan alchemist. After all, he’s previously gone the opera route in 2007’s Chinese-themed Monkey: Journey to the West. Still, after Gorillaz went on indefinite hiatus, I doubt anyone predicted that, rather than the definitive solo album his discography still lacks, we’d see Albarn release the score he composed for a Faustian opera set in 16th century England. I’m certain more than a few casual fans will scoop up this album not fully realizing that they’re in for a BBC Philharmonic orchestral score bereft of any “woohoos,” kids with guns or sunshine in a bag.
The opera made a nine-day run in July 2011 as part of the Manchester International Festival, which Albarn has been involved with since Gorillaz’s performance of Demon Days Live in the middle of the last decade. Dr Dee is rife with Elizabethan era instrumentation including the lute, recorder and more obscure music makers, along with Allen’s African drumming and use of the kora. Albarn does the harmonium work and lends his hand to the infrequent guitar. The score opens with birdsong, rushing water and a tolling church bell. Woodwinds and the brass section spring to life and the harmonium drones over it all, setting a melancholic and ominous tone. There’s a dramatic component to this genesis, even though the album as a whole won’t provide much in the way of coherent narrative without the visual element. The score tends to vacillate between dark brooding and the lazily pastoral, and Albarn eases into the latter with “Apple Carts,” the first of a fair number of tracks to which he lends his own voice. Thankfully, Albarn doesn’t attempt to contort his vocals into something resembling an opera singer’s. And his widely recognized voice does, in fact, add broader appeal and accessibility to an album subtitled An English Opera.
Female vocals take over in “The Moon Exalted,” adding a greater theatrical dimension as Albarn sings in response, backed with the swelling of lute and woodwinds. The bass voice in the sinister “A Man of England” resonates well, and along with cellos, bassoons and some sporadic plucking, the track is dark as ink. During the brief minute-long “Coronation,” chamber vocals billow, giving way to lute and the scratchy play-by-play of a queen’s enthronement. “A Prayer” unites baritone and mezzo-soprano vocals and pairs them with the tremolo of strings. Allen adds an African drum solo in “Preparation” and even with the shift in instrumentation the transition is seamless. Albarn has created a musical score so varied and richly textured that no change in focus comes as a surprise and no track is entirely predictable. This remains true even when distortion drifts over the scattered percussion and whispered vocals of “9 Point Star.”
The 18-track score ends as it began, bookended by bird chirps and a babbling brook. This score stands up to repeated listens and is accessible to those not typically inclined to appreciate opera. The storyline is virtually indecipherable from the score alone, and while the music evokes plenty of mental imagery, the lack of actual visuals makes the whole thing somewhat less enticing. I can’t imagine Dr Dee ever being viewed as anything more than one of Albarn’s curveballs, even if it manages to catch the corner of the strike zone. Despite lacking the timelessness of much of Albarn’s other work, Dr Dee does possess the je ne sais quoi of his entire oeuvre, but in this case it’s an ornate garnish not a main course. When all is said and done, Dr Dee demonstrates yet again that Albarn is a true Renaissance man whose vision stretches even wider than his global audience. Who knows what this musical mad scientist will cook up next.