Damon Albarn has enjoyed a productive relationship with the Manchester International Festival since Gorillaz performed Demon Days Live there in 2006. The following year, he took Monkey: Journey to the West to the festival and then wrote the music for It Felt like A Kiss, an immersive theatre production, in 2009. And so, last year, following a stuttering collaboration with the comic book author Alan Moore, the man best known for hollering Cockney-pop sing-alongs with his band Blur, worked alongside theatre director Rufus Norris to create the opera Dr Dee.
The opera tells the story of John Dee, Elizabeth I's medical and scientific advisor. Taken out of its theatrical context, this recording contains some moments of real beauty, alongside some distinctly unsettling moments and several passages of time, which simply pass by, pleasantly, leaving little trace nor impact. The score was composed using traditional Elizabethan instruments, yet also incorporates the drumming of the Nigerian percussionist Tony Allen (of The Good, the Bad and the Queen, another of Albarn's music quests). When Damon sings, there are times at which an active disengagement with the past is required, in order to appreciate these compositions as they were intended. Banish all thoughts of Damon Albarn, the Blur singer, legs akimbo at Mile End Stadium, pogoing in his Fred Perry polo shirts and grubby jeans. Focus, instead on Damon Albarn 2012.
At his best, on tracks like 'Apple Carts,' Damon creates a gentle folky sound, befitting of his own style, as well as that of the opera. The overarching effect of 'Apple Carts' is a song that sounds a little like Syd Barrett, at his softest. 'O Spirit, Animate Us' follows immediately after, in a similar vein, as Albarn employs some moving harmonies, in this hymnal number. At times like these, it's easy to shake off the image of the Albarn of days gone by. At other times, though, such as on 'The Moon Exalted,' his South London tones rest uneasily alongside the operatic tones of the female and it becomes increasingly difficult to silence the voice inside, which screams "why, Damon. why!"
As a listening experience, 'Dr Dee' is a series of moments; it is tricky to evaluate as a whole, as those moments are brief - only one track lasts longer than three and a half minutes - such is the nature of the soundtrack recording. Lyrically, there is not enough substance to be able to follow the story of the opera, so the listener is left with the task of simply appreciating the snippets of brilliance that lie within. Tony Allen's drumming, on 'Preparation,' is sublime, though perhaps a touch too idiosyncratic given the Elizabethan-England-folk style of the rest of the music. And, if attention has not been scattered by the brevity of the fifteen tracks that precede it, 'Cathedrals' is a moving affair; one of the strongest of the tracks vocalised by Damon. The key here is context, of course; these compositions were not created to be listened to as entities in a stand-alone context and the experience suffers for that. Those 'moments,' though, when they work, are brief, but compelling.