After the successes of Blur and Gorillaz, Damon Albarn has set the bar high for his collaborative projects, and Dr. Dee represents his first real step into solo territory. Conceived as an operetta based on the life of the advisor to Queen Elizabeth I, it was staged in Manchester in July last year, and this disc has been released as an amalgamation of the soundtrack from it and a freestanding album in its own right.
Across the eighteen tracks there is little sense of narrative, or any kind of aesthetic cohesion. Edward Kelley, for example, uses a viol and countertenor, while Preparation is entirely percussion, driven by an electronic kit. The Marvelous Dream, which had some airtime on BBC Radio 6Music, is more what one would expect from Albarn; just his distinctive vocal timbre following the bassline of an acoustic guitar, with lyrics that tread the borderline between the profound and the pretentious.
With the amount of variety in this album, it becomes tricky to get a grip of what’s going on or even follow the plot of the opera. More banal than fascinating, the lack of a single breadth of expression so necessary in opera leads to a complete lack of direction, either narrative or musical. The ‘olde musicke’ effect that Albarn tries to implement comes across as a sequence of poorly-researched caricatures (assuming they were meant to be authentic), and the tolling bells, contrabassoons, and deep bass voice of A Man of England comes across as comical because it is so over-the-top. While this disc might offer some persuasion to other bands to expand their arsenal of instruments to include things like sackbutts and theorbos, the way it has been done here is not conducive to establishing a sense of being in the sixteenth-century, and simply adds to the disjunct nature of an already disjunct album.
While this was originally the soundtrack to a visual spectacle, the fact that it is being offered up for sale as a standalone musical item means that someone (presumably Albarn) thought that it would work as an album which, because of an almost complete lack of continuity, it doesn’t. Like Will Gregory’s Piccard in Space, this is an opera to prove that writing good songs and writing good operas are two very different challenges. Whatever Albarn chooses to do next, it can only be better than this effort.