Arcane, abstract, absolutely remarkable
Damon Albarn - Dr Dee

If you’re unfamiliar with the alchemist John Dee, mathematician, astronomer, advisor to the Virgin Queen and supposed inspiration for both Shakespeare’s Prospero and Marlowe’s Faustus, you’ll learn little of his life from this album. But that’s not really a criticism; Albarn never set out to write a conventional operatic libretto. ‘Dr Dee’ is instead a magical mood piece, a celebratory yet plaintive Elizabethan masque about a spectacular fall from favour and grace.

It incorporates the structures of 16th century polyphony utilising lutes and dulcimers, the African kora and contemporary orchestration courtesy of the BBC Philharmonic. Punctuated with Albarn on guitar and harmonium and the infinitely adaptable talents of Afrobeat drummer Tony Allen, this is a genuine, audacious musical experiment.

We awaken to a golden dawn of birdsong followed by bucolic ballad ‘Apple Carts’, a fragile folky lament; ‘Oh Spirit’ is by contrast a brittle, hermetic liturgy. Albarn’s songs punctuate a traditional chorus constructed of characters from Dee’s life, a curious mix of Peter Greenaway soundtrack and Ray Davies at his most pastoral. Government minister Walsingham’s baritone is deep with gravitas and the counter tenor of the despicable medium Kelley, Dee’s ultimate downfall, is unsettling but sublimely beautiful. From Royal advisor and man of letters to communing with angels and consorting with devils, we are party to it all.

Whereas the staged opera was able to unify these disparate stylistic elements the recording isn’t quite so successful. Overblown yet elegant and intimate, this is a bold undertaking; arcane, abstract, absolutely remarkable.



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