Newsletter: FT Weekend
Get a shot of weekend inspiration with the best in life, arts and culture. Delivered every Saturday morning.
Damon Albarn’s forthcoming solo album began life as a generously phrased commission from a French festival: “You can do what you want.” Ideas began forming in the Blur and Gorillaz frontman’s busy imagination, involving elemental Icelandic landscapes (he has a house near Reykjavik) and the concept of an empty cruise ship in an icy bay with a ghostly band playing desolate tunes.
The result is The Nearer the Fountain, More Pure the Stream Flows, whose elaborate title is borrowed from a poem by the English Romantic poet John Clare. A number of its tracks were debuted by Albarn at the Globe Theatre, in a show played to a sold-out audience that also had a virtual audience watching via live stream. The venue — a facsimile of the 17th-century theatre where Shakespeare’s plays were staged — was an incongruous setting for the Icelandic topography of the new songs. But the Globe’s copycat architecture illuminated a criticism that can be levelled at Albarn. Is his curiosity for different genres and geographies really a form of well-resourced pastiche?
A two-hour set in which new material was accompanied by a tour around the byways of his sprawling discography, with the occasional stop at Gorillaz and Blur landmarks, provided an answer. In the gallery above Albarn stood a trio of violinists. Surrounding him were his backing musicians and a plethora of musical instruments and monitors. When not sitting at a piano, Albarn negotiated his way carefully along the lip of the stage with microphone in hand, trying to avoid the biosanitary faux pas of falling into the non-socially distanced audience.
The new album’s title track set an updated version of Clare’s poem to a drizzly electronic shimmer. In “The Cormorant”, Albarn sang about vanished times of family happiness on a beach, a dismal scenario salvaged by a lively beat. The mournful mood that often grips Albarn’s songs can have a mannered aspect. But his inveterate gift for rhythmic and melodic vibrancy pulls in the opposite direction. This was evident in new songs such as “Polaris”, a lugubrious anthem that he semi-successfully encouraged people to sing along to during the encore. It was even more obvious in the older material.
In part, the concert was a tribute to Albarn’s frequent collaborator, the great Nigerian drummer Tony Allen, who died last year. Here the mournfulness could not help but be rhythmically alive. Allen’s student Femi Koleoso recreated his complex percussive style on songs by The Good, the Bad and the Queen, the band that Albarn formed with Allen. Mike Smith’s fairground organ routines, Simon Tong’s effects-laden guitarwork and Seye Adelekan’s dub-reggae bass gave the music’s brand of ghostliness a satisfyingly chewy air. Songs such as the Gorillaz ballad “Hong Kong” featured the intricate sound of the kora, played by Seckou Keita.
Countertenor Christopher Robson was guest vocalist for “Edward Kelley” from Albarn’s score for the opera Dr Dee, about the Elizabethan alchemist John Dee. Adapting the style of Elizabethan composers such as John Dowland, it was not only appropriate to the Globe but also linked Albarn’s love of musical melancholy to older traditions of English songcraft. A heartily sung rendition of Blur’s “This Is a Low”, whose maritime imagery connected with the world of his new songs, highlighted the irrepressible vigour that animates his work. He is omnivorous rather than covetous, an original not a copyist.
‘The Nearer the Fountain, More Pure the Stream Flows’ is released by Transgressive on November 12