Damon Albarn

Dr. Dee

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Officially, Dr. Dee is Damon Albarn's first solo album but that's the tiniest misnomer. Ever since Graham Coxon left Blur during the recording of Think Tank, Albarn has been the unquestioned director of his projects, his authoritative stamp evident on Think Tank, all three Gorillaz albums, Mali Music, the Good, the Bad & the Queen, and Rocket Juice & the Moon, so Dr. Dee doesn't exactly have the shock of the new even though it's certainly willfully odd. An opera -- not a rock opera, or the first opera Albarn has written, as he has 2007's Monkey: Journey to the West under his belt -- Dr. Dee concerns itself with the story of John Dee, the 16th century mathematician and occultist who was an advisor to Elizabeth I and is said to be the inspiration for Marlowe's Faustus and Shakespeare's Prospero. Rich material for an opera, in other words, and Dr. Dee is certainly thick with ideas, Albarn not running away from his signature tropes so much as using them as a launching pad for a stately, lugubrious collection of minor-key instrumentals, skeletal pop songs, plainsongs, and madrigals. Much of this is intriguing, yet as an album if not a production, Dr. Dee stays just this side of compelling, always threatening to veer into surprising, dangerous territory yet never quite succumbing to the risk. And that is where Dr. Dee's roots in the stage show: perhaps it is a bit stuffy and hidebound for art rock, but taken as a theatrical production, it's adventurously cerebral, an album to ponder if not quite embrace.

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