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Damon Albarn
Dr Dee Ben Graham , May 4th, 2012 13:59

"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..."

"But what of the name of Dee, Kelley? Be it still known at court, and across the land?"

"It is being spoken of by many, sire, thanks to a chattering imp who is known as the Demon Ill-born; and he hath invoked thy name with music and with rhyme, and hath conjured a troupe of mummers to dance and frolic and tell thy tale upon the stage."

"Tell me more of this Demon Ill-Born, Kelley. What manner of creature is he, that doth seek to summon me in some aeon yet to be?"

"He hath lately consorted with apes, sire, with monkey, aye, and with Gorillaz... and shortly he cavorts upon the stage, before the spectacle of a vast Olympiad that many liken to a grandiose folly. He appears amid a Blur, and doth affect the accent of a common Londoner; withal he doth proclaim of life amid the park, and of how he shall lead the people, aye, all the people, hand in hand unto the green swathe, like he is a merry piper. And he is assisted in this evocation by one who is a practitioner of the law, and one who is a maker of cheese, and another who doth strum upon the lute with much vexedness and dismay..."

Okay, enough. But if Damon Albarn has been investigating the life of Dr John Dee, Elizabethan alchemist, magus, mathematician and visionary, then may not the reverse also be true, and Dee be permitted to investigate Albarn? The reputed model for Shakespeare's Prospero and Marlowe's Faustus, an advisor to the queen and an early imperialist who also spoke with angels, Dee might find that he and Albarn have much in common. Both, after all, were East London boys who studied in Essex- Albarn's family moving from Whitechapel to Colchester when he was young, while Dee attended the catholic school in nearby Chelmsford. And Albarn must have blanched in empathy on hearing how Dee, following his fall from grace, was exiled to Manchester of all places, where no doubt he was tormented by mono-browed ruffians who ardently prayed he be afflicted by the pox, and suffer such till he be dead. The idea has even been floated of Albarn as an occult sorcerer, specifically in Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie's excellent comic book Phonogram, where music is magic, DJs are 'retromancers' and Britpop was a psychic war for the soul of the goddess Britannia as the new millennium approached.

However, it was another occultist and practising magician from the world of comic books, Alan Moore, who apparently conceived the idea of writing an opera about Dee, after Albarn and his Gorillaz partner Jamie Hewlett approached him in 2008, with the idea of collaborating on a follow-up to their 2007 success Monkey: Journey to the West. Moore eventually withdrew from the project, as did Hewlett on Gorillaz' dissolution, leaving Albarn to soldier on with director Rufus Norris to create the show that opened to positive reviews at last year's Manchester International Festival, and which is to be revived with the English National Opera in London as part of the cultural Olympiad. But reading Moore's erudite and densely structured unfinished libretto, as published in volume four of The Strange Attractor Journal, it's hard not to speculate on what might have been. Especially when listening to Albarn's soundtrack album which, for all its many merits, does seem a little light on any kind of coherent narrative.

Indeed, listened to in isolation from the show, the album tells one very little about Dr Dee, though perhaps somewhat more about Damon Albarn. Opening with an overture of twittering birdsong and portentous organ swells ('The Golden Dawn'), Dr Dee moves swiftly into a sequence of pastoral acoustic ballads that are pretty much what one might expect from a conventional solo album by the lead singer of Blur. 'Apple Carts' mines the seam of gently wistful English psychedelia that has always run through Albarn's songwriting; heavily indebted to Robert Wyatt (Albarn's father was at one point the manager of Wyatt's old band The Soft Machine) and, to a lesser extent, Syd Barrett and Nick Drake. 'O Spirit Animate Us' finds Albarn singing a variation on the Lord's Prayer to a hurdy-gurdy backing: "O Father, we who have become hallowed by the night..." Presumably this is the point where Dee, fallen from favour with Queen Mary and imprisoned for treason, is praying for an upturn in his fortunes, and the general zeitgeist; "Give us a revival," he finally implores. Though he doesn't play the part, it's assumed that Albarn is singing as John Dee, as on the courtly love song 'The Moon Exalted' (a duet with Victoria Couper, as Dee's wife Jane), where he mixes astrology with a bit of Neil Young: "Cinnamon girl, I summon you here."

'Saturn' moves along similar themes, while 'The Marvellous Dream' is the album's most strikingly Blur-like moment, and has been singled out for radio play as a result: not only that, but this gorgeous, introspective acoustic ballad could easily be taken as a commentary on the reformation and eventual dissolution of said band. "I brought some godfire to the stage," Albarn sings wistfully, before wondering if it's "a time for revival, or just a marvellous dream?" And that's before we get to the chanted chorus line: "I called to the dance, now the party's begun / alcohol holiday and the drug and bass drum." All this seems to be very much related to the life and times of D Albarn rather than Dee, Dr.

It's always hard to read too much, though, into Albarn's impressionistic, often non-linear lyric-writing, which hardly lends itself well to a narrative form like opera. When he has to be more direct, as on character pieces like 'Edward Kelley', Albarn falls back on the broad caricature style of Blur songs like 'Charmless Man'. So the great counter-tenor Christopher Robson is forced to sing "I am a scryer / I am for hire." And while 'A Man of England' has something of the sinister lugubriousness of Scott Walker's Tilt about it, this is mainly down to the powerful baritone of Steven Page, the lyrics "I am a man of England, will you come and play? You have drawn the black again, and I the white" communicating little beyond a vague aura of menace. Elsewhere, the spaces are filled in with brief choral interludes ('Coronation', 'Tree of Beauty'), afrobeat percussion numbers ('Preparation', 'Point Star') and Blackadder-esque parody ('Watching the Fire that Waltzed Away', which descends into bouts of melodramatic groaning).

At times, the combination of pastoral classicism and Elizabethan ballad style with acoustic English psychedelia brings to mind Craig Fortnam's North Sea Radio Orchestra or, more obscurely, the excellent Aberystwyth collective The Lowland Hundred, whose albums Under Cambrian Sky and Adit attempt this kind of collaged, psychogeographical soundscape with far greater scope and emotional resonance. Albarn, like Dee, may have been hoping in this opera to find the alchemical formula with which to transform himself - in his case, from aging bohemian pop star to serious artist and composer. But despite the many hugely talented performers involved, Dr Dee is less philosopher's stone, and more curate's egg: a handful of fine songs where Albarn plays to his existing strengths, but mired in a sea of over-reaching folly. And ultimately, both Dee and Albarn deserve better.