Damon Albarn: The Nearer the Fountain, More Pure the Stream Flows review – beautifully haunting | Damon Albarn

When Could’s Glastonbury livestream lastly creaked into life, it provided viewers an fascinating research in contrasts. At 9pm, Coldplay appeared, rolling out the massive hits from their 20-year profession on an illuminated platform in entrance of the Pyramid stage, the empty discipline full of lights. It was a efficiency with a definite trace of top-dog gamesmanship about it: ignore the operating order – everybody is aware of who the headliners are right here. Afterwards, the cameras lower to a mulleted Damon Albarn seated at a piano. He carried out a sequence of serpentine unreleased songs, adorned with shivering, summary electronics and guitar and infrequently atonal string preparations. He performed a track from Dr Dee, his 2011 opera about the Sixteenth-century mathematician, astronomer and occultist. And when he lastly dished up one thing from the Blur or Gorillaz catalogues that the informal observer may know, it was rearranged in a approach that made it sound darker and sadder.

Damon Albarn: The Nearer the Fountain, More Pure the Stream Flows album cover
Damon Albarn: The Nearer the Fountain, More Pure the Stream Flows album cowl

It was a neat illustration of Albarn’s up to date method to music-making. By all accounts considered one of the most zealously pushed artists of the Britpop period, he has spent the final 20 years doing one thing you’ll count on extra main rock stars to do, however that hardly any really appear to handle: utilizing the area and time created by huge success with the intention to do precisely what they need, unbothered by industrial considerations. Doing precisely what he needs has generally occasioned extra huge success – Gorillaz’s second album Demon Days bought 8m copies worldwide – however there have additionally been musicals with lyrics in Cantonese, collaborative tasks influenced by Solar Ra, Funkadelic and Fela Kuti, and soundtracks for immersive theatre works carried out by the Kronos Quartet, none of which seem like have been made with a watch on the charts or high billing at festivals.

Then there are the tasks that sit someplace in the center of what you may name the sliding Albarn scale (Ladies and Boys or Really feel Good Inc at one finish and Dr Dee’s experiments with the viol and theorbo at the different), of which The Nearer the Fountain is an ideal instance. The supply of most of Albarn’s Glastonbury set, it started life as a fee from a French arts pageant, underwent a knotty, Covid-punctuated gestation interval and has emerged as the de facto follow-up to Albarn’s 2014 solo album, On a regular basis Robots. It’s a markedly completely different beast from its predecessor: extra opaque musically and lyrically, flecked with jazzy saxophone, incessantly pushed by the sound of an historical drum machine. It drifts alongside in a melancholy, stoned mist – you possibly can detect its origins in improvisations impressed by the view from Albarn’s Reykjavik studio – its temper subdued by the pandemic and the dying in 2020 of frequent Albarn collaborator Tony Allen, whose ghost looms over the opening title observe: “You appeared immortal … to my coronary heart you have been nearest.” The lyrics are full of disquieting recollections of happier instances: youngsters taking part in on a seashore, deserted buildings the place events have been as soon as held. Ostensibly a love track, even the comparatively upbeat Royal Morning Blue sounds haunted by one thing aside from the relationship at its centre: “Nothing like this had ever occurred earlier than … keep by my facet at the finish of the world”.

There are moments the place the music sounds nearly too crushed by the weight of the world, the place the songs begin to unravel and turn into exhausting to latch on to. The Cormorant shifts out and in of focus, someplace between dreamlike and irritating; the intense sax improv of instrumental Combustion is difficult work. However for the most half, the album’s temper is affecting and enveloping. If there’s a thread that runs all through Albarn’s diffuse tasks, it’s a particular sort of melody, suffused with a weary unhappiness, performed out over descending chords. Its earliest iteration might need been on Blur’s This Is a Low, however it’s a mode of writing that appears to crop up no matter the musical setting. It even survived his experiments with a Chinese language pentatonic scale on 2008’s Monkey: Journey to the West. It’s pushed to the fore right here, in some beautiful examples of sort: the tune of Daft Wader is plaintively stunning, a minimum of till it collapses into darkish, foggy atmosphere; Darkness to Gentle swoons languorously in waltz time; the bleak travelogue of The Tower of Montevideo matches completely with its sighing tune.

There’s no getting round the indisputable fact that The Nearer the Fountain is emotionally heavy going. Optimism glints fitfully by means of the murkiness, listeners preferring the perky, poppy Albarn of Dare or Tune 2 are resolutely not thrown a bone, and the sense of an artist doing exactly what he needs is as robust as ever. Albarn not too long ago prompt that he was “not opposed” to a different Blur reformation on the grounds that it could be “gentle aid in comparison with what I do now”, however, for all its exhausted, preoccupied darkness, The Nearer the Fountain is a genuinely stunning album.

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