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Only Damon Albarn. Only he could create an album as self-interesting and openly obscure as one about Dr John Dee – an Elizabethan mathematician, polymath and advisor to the Queen, born 1527. Only Albarn could make it into an operatic production (his second) and present it to the English National Opera for this summer’s Cultural Olympiad. Only Albarn could get an 18-track record of choral singing, medieval instruments and a whole load of “hey nonny nonny” released by a major record label. Only Damon Albarn, because, like it or not, with his eclectic (often) genius and prolific output has come total carte blanche. Great for him, not so great for us.

‘Dr Dee’ is almost too fractured to pass judgment on. It’s certainly too self-indulgent. It plays like the passion project it clearly is, and more like a modern operatic soundtrack than anything else – choirs chop up the acts, classically trained vocalists enter stage left and exist stage right, Albarn himself plays a narrator, of sorts, popping up for sweet, minimal interludes all over the place. It’s impossible to get a grip on any real sense of direction. For ‘A Man of England’ a cartoonish bass singer booms to dreaded cellos; on ‘Edward Kelley’ the falsetto is even more comical, sounding like the credits of Blackadder II. Neither return, like many of the acoustic instruments (the flute, the harpsichord, the bassoon) that Albarn picks up only to quickly put back down again. He even chucks in an obligatory bit of African music into a record that is otherwise completely Elizabethan in sound, and of Dr Dee’s time, although you’ve long forgotten the concept behind this album by ‘9 Point Star’.

Albarn himself refers to this music as “strange pastoral folk”, which is at least accurate, English hills and dales materialised for the rise and fall of Dee, as the album begins and eventually ends with crystalline field recordings of birds nattering. Dee died in poverty, by the way, having mucked about with séances and wife-swapping. Like the continual references to religion (Dee, like all Elizabethan’s, was never far from matters of God), it’s all here, I’m sure. Although to really be aware of that you’ll need to not constantly be questioning what on earth to make of Albarn’s latest anti-popular record. On one hand, his defiance to create anything other than what he wants at this stage in his career is as valiant as it is daft; on the other, sparse and splintered, you can’t be sure that ‘Dr Dee’ makes for good opera either.

By Stuart Stubbs

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