Damon Albarn’s ‘Dr Dee’: A musical gem buried by Albarn himself

Damon Albarn released ‘Dr. Dee’ in May 2012. At that point, it was only the second album recorded under his name, after 2003’s bizarre and intimate ‘Democrazy’. Drawn from Albarn’s eponymous opera about the Renaissance astronomer and adviser to Queen Elizabeth I, ‘Dr. Dee’ comprises a delicate mixture of exquisite acoustic songs and bombastic, theatrical pieces. It is intricate and transporting.

dr dee

However, during the intervening four years, the album seems to have been dismissed – most of all by Albarn himself.

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Early March, 2014: Damon Albarn releases the song ‘Everyday Robots’ – the lead single for his ‘debut solo album’. In interview after interview, Albarn perpetuated the notion that ‘Everyday Robots’ was his debut solo album. It may indeed be his most ‘autobiographical’ and ‘personal’ work – to use Albarn’s words – but the numerous claims that this was his first record with his name on it were ludicrous (see album cover above, bearing Albarn’s name). Most unfortunately, Albarn presented ‘Everyday Robots’ as his debut solo album at the expense of a far superior one.

The rock and pop man was never a bold promoter of ‘Dr. Dee’. In an interview with Alan Moore for French television in June 2012, he expressed his anxiety about the soft sound of the album’s lead single, ‘The Marvelous Dream’. The song was indeed a far-cry from the likes of ‘Song 2’ and ‘Clint Eastwood’. The ever-articulate Albarn told Moore:

‘It’s so kind of against what… I don’t know… it doesn’t have a drumbeat, it doesn’t have drums, to start off with. It doesn’t have drums, no electrics, no bass. The words are really odd’.

Albarn was ‘touched’ that ‘The Marvelous Dream’ nevertheless received some airplay. His language smacked of an awareness that ‘Dr. Dee’ was not the kind of music most of his fanbase tended to enjoy.

The album’s lead single certainly did not have drums. In fact, the list of instruments used in the recording of ‘Dr. Dee’ makes for an interesting read. It includes a viola da gamba, shawm, a dulcian, a lute and a crumhorn. Albarn evokes Elizabethan England with an orchestra of instruments unfamiliar to the modern recording studio. No wonder ‘Dr. Dee’ was not to the tastes of many Blur and Gorillaz fans.

It is sad to see that Albarn himself recognises the under-appreciation of his most intriguing musical venture. In an interview on BBC Breakfast in June 2015, promoting his show ‘wonder.land’, Albarn stated:

‘I did Dr. Dee, which was about a 17th-century mystic and, really, it was way too esoteric for most people’s tastes. But I really enjoyed making it’

john dee 2

19th-century engraving of Dr. John Dee

When one considers the comparisons between Blur and Oasis that Albarn had to endure in the mid-1990s, something such as ‘Dr. Dee’ shows how far the man has risen artistically above his once-rival Noel Gallagher. ‘Dr. Dee’ begins with a crescendo of discordant horns and ends with birdsong, bursting with gorgeous melody in the interim. It puts a distance between Albarn and rock guitar music; a distance that would leave Gallagher far from home.

Without contemporary parallel, this deeply idiosyncratic album warrants more attention and praise – not least from the very man who created it.

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