Part-Time Alchemist

Photo: Pennie Smith

Igot very excited about everything in about 1998,” says Damon Albarn. Having warmed up with “a cup of tea and a toke,” he’s beaming via Skype from his London studio to one of the more presentable corners of my apartment—a quick break in the absurdly productive schedule of a musician who really does seem excited about a great many things. There’s the gig in August, when he’ll reunite with his old band, Blur, to headline the closing festivities of the London Olympics. June brings the release of an album he co-produced for soul legend Bobby Womack. But most pressing is the thing we’re talking about today—Dr Dee, an opera Albarn wrote about the Elizabethan-era scholar and metaphysician John Dee, who attempted to commune with heavenly powers on the queen’s behalf. It’s available this week as an album, and Albarn will perform in it, midsummer, at the English National Opera.

At 44, Albarn still has the puckish, playful manner that, at the peak of Blur’s success, was frequently interpreted as arrogance. He seems as if he’s leisurely pondering ­everything around him and coming up with amusing results. He answers questions in an arch, oracular tone, like a guy teasing a roomful of academics. On this summer’s Olympics: “A lot of good human attributes will be displayed. And unfortunately some slightly less worthy ones as well. There won’t be as great a focus on this country come September. There’ll be a lot of Union Jack burst balloons. On empty streets. Like tumbleweeds.”

A full accounting of the things he’s gotten excited about since 1998 would be long: He’s recorded four albums with the cartoon concept band Gorillaz; made records like The Good, the Bad, & the Queen and Rocket Juice & the Moon with collaborators including the Clash’s Paul Simonon and Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea; scored films including Ravenous and 101 Reykjavik; and studied up on Chinese folk music to produce Monkey: Journey to the West, an opera adapted from the sixteenth-century novel. His work schedule is “nine to five, five days a week, not on school holidays” (he has a 12-year-old daughter with his partner, artist Suzi Winstanley)—and when I note the funny side effect that a lot of fans and critics spend their time talking about what he could be doing next, or what they wish he were doing next, occasionally to the exclusion of what he is actually doing, his response is a mild cackle and a wryly sincere “That’s very nice of them to care.”

One does notice, though, that very little of this work starts with some grand creative vision on Albarn’s part. He goes in for open-ended collaborations and freelance tasks. “I suppose that’s one of the differences of looking at it as a job,” he says. “I’ve got to somehow connect emotionally with whatever comes through the in-box.” Dr Dee is one of those in-box arrivals: Its subject was originally suggested by comics bigwig Alan Moore, who was to write the libretto, to Albarn and his Gorillaz partner, artist Jamie Hewlett. But Moore left the project, claiming annoyance that Albarn and Hewlett never came through with illustrations they promised for his magazine. Meanwhile, Albarn and Hewlett seem to have gone through some sheepish falling-out themselves. (“That sounds very juvenile, doesn’t it?” Albarn asked a Guardian reporter. “But being juvenile about it, it happens.”)

Perhaps it’s a good thing he was left stranded on the project: Dr Dee feels like the most purely “Damon Albarn” thing Damon Albarn’s done in a long time. As a record, it’s stuffed with ideas—there’s much thoughtful, painterly shading of harmony and carefully chosen timbres ranging from Elizabethan instruments to a West African kora. But it’s sung mostly by Albarn himself, in a soft and searching voice. As its opening recording of countryside birdsong suggests, it’s still and spare in a way that requires radical deceleration from today’s habits into something slower and more meditative. Throughout Albarn’s career, one finds a streak of melancholy, languorous songs, from Blur favorites like “This Is a Low” to the torpid, dissonant foil he’s played on some of his collaborations. Dr Dee’s pastoral folk is like a grand showcase for that impulse, especially when Albarn’s playing the contemplative narrator. His turn on the second half of “The Moon Exalted” is among the most tender things he’s ever penned.

“I’ve always been interested in English history,” he says, “and John Dee was such a fascinating player in the story. He was maybe ordained a Catholic priest, yet he worked in the reign of a very paranoid Protestant queen. And he sincerely believed that he’d devised a system to communicate, on behalf of the queen and the state, with God, through the angels.” Dee’s sincerity is hard to doubt: When Edward Kelley, the occultist and alchemist responsible for receiving those angels’ messages, reported one day that the angels mostly just wanted Dee to wife-swap with him, Dee reluctantly agreed. “It was one of those points,” says Albarn. “ ‘If I ignore this instruction, then all previous instructions were invalid.’ That’s what happens with obsessives—you have to keep going or else there’s no meaning in what you’ve been doing.”

The project seems like home territory for Albarn, whose time in Blur was full of character songs, sleepy pastoral interludes, and wry commentaries on England. “I can still be quite wry when I need to,” he points out not long before offering the great understatement that there may be “a bit of humor” in Dr Dee. There’s modernity as well. The song “Marvelous Dream” comes right after the coronation of Elizabeth I, for which Dee ordained the date; Albarn says he wrote it while watching the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton on television. In what sense, I ask him, is Dr Dee about the present? This gets one of his more careful answers: “I imagine people in open spaces,” he says, “sort of meditating on something that is beyond the press of a Google search.”

The story’s mystical and spiritual dimensions are no joke for Albarn. “It’s not enough just to read about him,” he says of Dee and his own two-year preparation for writing the opera. “A lot of what he was into was so esoteric that you’ve got to understand a bit of Kabbalah, hermetica, old-school Catholicism, Sufism. I certainly know more than I used to, but I’m not yet able to open portals to different realities.”

I suggest that at his current rate of production, perhaps that’ll come a few albums down the line?

“Okay then,” he says. “I’m working on it.”

Dr Dee
Damon Albarn.
Virgin Records.

Part-Time Alchemist