Damon Albarn ‘Dr. Dee' (Virgin)
Damon Albarn is almost prolific beyond reason, and yet the founder of Blur, Gorillaz, Rocket Juice & the Moon, Mali Music, The Good, The Bad and The Queen and probably 10 other bands he has yet to reveal is just now releasing a proper solo album (not counting the 2003 vinyl-only demo collection “Democrazy”). Fans hoping for a definitive album, an artistic statement summarizing Albarn's considerable gifts, might have unreasonable expectations. While few modern singer-songwriters capture Englishness quite as well as Albarn, “Dr. Dee,” an opera about Elizabethan mathematician, scientist and occultist John Dee, is more than four centuries away from modernity.
Extremely influential in the court of Elizabeth I, Dee advised the queen on astrology and is credited with choosing her coronation date. Albarn's work, performed in 2011 as “Dr. Dee: An English Opera,” is presented on “Dr. Dee” as a hybrid, partly composed of Albarn's renditions of pastoral folk ballads such as “Apple Carts” and the stunning “The Marvelous Dream,” partly operatic and choral performances by the original cast. As such, “Dr. Dee” plays alternately like Fairport Convention, an Anglican Church service and Blur at their most introspective.
But those elements fit together more coherently than many fans might expect, and many of the performances where Albarn sits out, including “Edward Kelley,” sung by countertenor Christopher Robson, are among the best on “Dr. Dee.” It is a challenging affair full of wonderful surprises (“Preparation,” featuring Rocket Juice/Fela Kuti drummer Tony Allen), grand ballads and one utter nightmare (“Watching the Fire That Waltzed Away”). Dee is a peculiar character from English history, widely believed to have inspired Prospero from William Shakespeare's “The Tempest,” and on “Dr. Dee,” Albarn creates his own tempestuous musical storm.
— George Lang