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.






PM Picks Playlist 1: Rett Madison, Folk Devils + More

The first PopMatters Picks Playlist column features searing Americana from Rett Madison, synthpop from Everything and Everybody, the stunning electropop of Jodie Nicholson, the return of post-punk's Folk Devils, and the glammy pop of Baby FuzZ.


David Lazar's 'Celeste Holm  Syndrome' Appreciates Hollywood's Unsung Character Actors

David Lazar's Celeste Holm Syndrome documents how character actor work is about scene-defining, not scene-stealing.


David Lord Salutes Collaborators With "Cloud Ear" (premiere)

David Lord teams with Jeff Parker (Tortoise) and Chad Taylor (Chicago Underground) for a new collection of sweeping, frequently meditative compositions. The results are jazz for a still-distant future that's still rooted in tradition.


Laraaji Takes a "Quiet Journey" (premiere +interview)

Afro Transcendentalist Laraaji prepares his second album of 2020, the meditative Moon Piano, recorded inside a Brooklyn church. The record is an example of what the artist refers to as "pulling music from the sky".


Blues' Johnny Ray Daniels Sings About "Somewhere to Lay My Head" (premiere)

Johnny Ray Daniels' "Somewhere to Lay My Head" is from new compilation that's a companion to a book detailing the work of artist/musician/folklorist Freeman Vines. Vines chronicles racism and injustice via his work.


The Band of Heathens Find That Life Keeps Getting 'Stranger'

The tracks on the Band of Heathens' Stranger are mostly fun, even when on serious topics, because what other choice is there? We all may have different ideas on how to deal with problems, but we are all in this together.


Landowner's 'Consultant' Is OCD-Post-Punk With Obsessive Precision

Landowner's Consultant has all the energy of a punk-rock record but none of the distorted power chords.


NYFF: 'American Utopia' Sets a Glorious Tone for Our Difficult Times

Spike Lee's crisp concert film of David Byrne's Broadway show, American Utopia, embraces the hopes and anxieties of the present moment.


South Africa's Phelimuncasi Thrill with Their Gqom Beats on '2013-2019'

A new Phelimuncasi anthology from Nyege Nyege Tapes introduces listeners to gqom and the dancefloors of Durban, South Africa.


Wolf Parade's 'Apologies to the Queen Mary' Turns 15

Wolf Parade's debut, Apologies to the Queen Mary, is an indie rock classic. It's a testament to how creative, vital, and exciting the indie rock scene felt in the 2000s.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Literary Scholar Andrew H. Miller On Solitude As a Common Bond

Andrew H. Miller's On Not Being Someone Else considers how contemplating other possibilities for one's life is a way of creating meaning in the life one leads.


Fransancisco's "This Woman's Work" Cover Is Inspired By Heartache (premiere)

Indie-folk brothers Fransancisco dedicate their take on Kate Bush's "This Woman's Work" to all mothers who have lost a child.


Rodd Rathjen Discusses 'Buoyancy', His Film About Modern Slavery

Rodd Rathjen's directorial feature debut, Buoyancy, seeks to give a voice to the voiceless men and boys who are victims of slavery in Southeast Asia.


Hear the New, Classic Pop of the Parson Red Heads' "Turn Around" (premiere)

The Parson Red Heads' "Turn Around" is a pop tune, but pop as heard through ears more attuned to AM radio's glory days rather than streaming playlists and studio trickery.


Blitzen Trapper on the Afterlife, Schizophrenia, Civil Unrest and Our Place in the Cosmos

Influenced by the Tibetan Book of the Dead, Blitzen Trapper's new album Holy Smokes, Future Jokes plumbs the comedic horror of the human condition.


Chris Smither's "What I Do" Is an Honest Response to Old Questions (premiere + interview)

How does Chris Smither play guitar that way? What impact does New Orleans have on his music? He might not be able to answer those questions directly but he can sure write a song about it.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Fire in the Time of Coronavirus

If we venture out our front door we might inhale both a deadly virus and pinpoint flakes of ash. If we turn back in fear we may no longer have a door behind us.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.