The Nearer the Fountain, More Pure the Stream Flows — that sounds like a pretentious mouthful for an album title, doesn’t it? It’s not just the title of Damon Albarn‘s new LP, it’s also the name of the first song and a repeated mantra throughout the album’s lyrics. Spend enough time with the record, and you’ll find the title growing less pompous by the second. The Blur and Gorillaz frontman has always had a special knack for songwriting that exceeded his ability to jot down Britpop hits. Whenever I get reacquainted with one of Albarn’s many projects, I find myself thinking, “Really, did no one think of this melody/cadence/arrangement/lyrical combination before now?” The Nearer the Fountain, More Pure the Stream Flows is no different. It may be more mellow and less pop than Albarn’s last solo album, Everyday Robots, but it still delivers in all the ways that count.
Albarn has always been hesitant to be a solo artist. Monikers like Gorillaz and Monkey helped him create music for particular contexts, but when he first considered making an actual solo album, he started a new band and hid behind the name the Good, the Bad & the Queen. Dr. Dee, a score for an opera about John Dee, was released under Albarn’s name but didn’t receive much PR push. It wasn’t until 2014 that Albarn was willing to take the full plunge and make what was, by most definitions, a solo album. Everyday Robots was pretty-low key in comparison to the vibrant hits of the animated/hip-hop crossover project Gorillaz, but the songs could lodge themselves into your brain all the same. The Nearer the Fountain, More Pure the Stream Flows is even more serene and low-key, providing room for the listener to dive in deep and explore the songs’ many hidden passages.
The Nearer the Fountain, More Pure the Stream Flows is built from demure pianos, soft clouds of synthesizers and organs, saxophone, and the subtlest of percussion. Albarn’s voice, always a reluctant focal point in his mixes, sounds as good as it did in Blur’s early days — perhaps even better. His vibrato on “The Cormorant” alone could fool you into thinking he’s really Elvis Costello.
The title track begins everything in an appropriately unassuming fashion.” To think of life, that did laugh on your face / In the beautiful past left so desolate now / When you’ve seemed immortal / So sweet it did we / Heaven’s halo around you.” That sure reads like a bunch of hippie-dippie nothing without Albarn’s warm, enveloping baritone to give it weight, but it’s all part of trusting his process. The song has the faintest of pulses, concentrating its energy on the large yet delicate arrangement.
“Royal Morning Blue” is a standout, not just because it picks up the tempo slightly and drops the lyric “Outside the nearer the fountain.” Albarn’s bend on the melody over the word “blue” is vintage him. Meanwhile, the hook for “And nothing like this had ever happened / Before” is undeniable.
The Nearer the Fountain, More Pure the Stream Flows comes with a handful of convincing instrumentals. You know, pieces of music that are more than just fun filler. “Combustion” recalls the Albert Ayler-skronk that spun circles within Blur’s “Jets” while subverting it in a field of pastoral piano. The other two instrumentals, “Esja” and “Giraffe Trumpet Sea”, are even better mood pieces. However, the latter gives flashes of the lighter side of Albarn that led to Blur’s early incidentals like “Lot 105” and “Intermission”.
Ponderous numbers like the airy ballad “Daft Wader” and the easy waltz “Darkness to Light” feel as though they should be longer than they are. Working with that much care and dynamic range, shouldn’t they get more exposure than just three minutes? No, nothing from The Nearer the Fountain, More Pure the Stream Flows overstays its welcome, no matter how reflective it is. “The Tower of Montevideo” and “Polaris”, songs that exceed the four-minute length, are as indulgent as the album ever gets. The Latin flavor behind “The Tower of Montevideo” is so understated that it barely exists. For “Polaris”, it sounds like Albarn is barely guiding it, much like the aviary subject: “See the birds / They have been taken by the wind / They are not together now.”
The record wraps up with “Particles”, a song as cool and calm as the title track that got it all started. “The nearer the fountain, more pure the stream flows / And sweeter the river, into which love grows,” Albarn sings yet again in one of those fresh-yet-familiar melodies that he is so adept at creating. After just a few plays, even the tiniest details begin to take shape for the listener. The Nearer the Fountain, More Pure the Stream Flows is a beautiful album, one worthy of the songwriter’s long and oddly-shaped legacy.