Damon Albarn: Dr. Dee

Creative mastermind Damon Albarn (Blur, Gorillaz, Rocket Juice & the Moon) releases the soundtrack to his opera, based on the life of John Dee. It's a stunning work on its own, but just doesn't find its footing unaccompanied by visuals.

Damon Albarn

Dr. Dee

Label: Capitol
US Release Date: 2012-05-08
UK Release Date: 2012-05-08

Dr. Dee promised to be a challenging work from the outset of the project. Initially it was planned as a collaboration between Albarn, his Gorillaz co-creator Jamie Hewlett, and graphic novel titan Alan Moore. Moore reportedly dropped the project early on but did leave the basic narrative idea, a musical about the life of John Dee, one of Queen Elizabeth I's closest advisors. Dr. Dee had a well-received run in Manchester, garnering acclaim from various publications during its eight-day stint at the Palace Theater. Capitol has now decided to release the soundtrack as a standalone piece.

In many cases soundtracks and scores have had flickering impact when isolated from their visual accompaniment. Dr. Dee slowly reveals that while it's no exception to that rule, it still attempts transcendence. How close it comes to succeeding over the course of its 18 tracks may be the most stunning aspect of the recording. Dr. Dee announces itself wisely with "Bells", an instrumental driven by a melancholy organ arrangement that runs over field recordings. While that may be a standard go-to for an introductory device, it became a standard for a reason: when it's done right, it works marvelously, as "Bells" shows.

"Bells" also proves to be the calm before the insane storm of wild-eyed genre-hopping that characterizes the entire recording. "Apple Cart" gets things off to a beautiful start, being eerily reminiscent of some of Shearwater's early work. It's also the first of several pieces which presents Albarn as a focal point. Somewhat unsurprisingly, the ensuing highlights of Dr. Dee tend to have Albarn taking the vocal parts, which is due, in part, to being able to literally hear his commitment to the material. Of course, it also helps that they're some of the record's most accessible and pop-oriented tracks, playing right into Albarn's wheelhouse. Among those, "Saturn", "The Marvelous Dream", and the stunning closer, "The Dancing King" are high points that showcase Albarn and distract from some of Dr. Dee's most unfortunate, overwrought excesses.

There are multiple instances in Dr. Dee where it's easy to wish it would've stood tall as a defiantly pop or rock opera instead of trying mightily to fit within traditional operatic style. Most notably is when the opera vocalist enters during the last half of "Temptation Comes in the Afternoon" and nearly derails it. As a soundtrack, Dr. Dee has serious trouble navigating these portions successfully. In a two-sided knife twist, though, its most unconventional moments become spectacular. Largely, apart from the Albarn-heavy songs, the ones that stand out are the brief instrumentals and the wordless chorus pieces. Each one brings something unique to the table and several are propelled by former Fela Kuti drummer/legend Tony Allen and the 20-piece BBC Philharmonic orchestra.

One of the briefest of these instrumentals is also the most fascinating. In a departure from the overall mood of the latter half of Dr. Dee comes "Moon (Interlude)", which features some out-of-nowhere near-shredding on acoustic guitar and nothing else. It's those small moments that do wonders in helping Dr. Dee remain a fascinating work. Whenver it seems like the album is about to lose its footing entirely, a moment like that will rope it back in. After a while, Dr. Dee essentially becomes a high-wire act in which Albarn teases potential disaster and tests limits, but always reigns things in just in time. Thankfully, more often than not, when he does return to form, he does it so spectacularly that any small missteps are forgiven.

Dr. Dee is unquestionably a towering, ambitious, and inarguably complete work that flies in the face of convention, as typically suits Albarn these days. It's accessible in parts, immensely challenging in others, and beguiling in its entirety. That incomprehensible strangeness and startling originality very well may be Dr. Dee's neatest trick. It keeps the listener listening and anxiously awaiting what comes next all the way through to its closing moments. That alone is worth the post-curtain call applause.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.