It's initially hard to classify Damon Albarn's new album, Dr Dee, let alone assess its quality. A stage opera composed by the former Britpopper, it tells the story of Dr. John Dee, the mathematician and alchemist who served as private physician to Queen Elizabeth I, and employs instruments and musical styles of the 16th century. To complicate matters, there are bits of kora and African percussion, along with narrative asides from Albarn delivered in his usual plaintive murmur.
As an album, Dr Dee is even harder to understand because, robbed of its visual aspect, it's only providing half of what the opera itself would. But the release of the score indicates that Albarn wants us to confront the music on its own terms, and forgetting the missing performance component, there's a lot to be drawn from the album itself. Mixing choral sections with acoustic ditties, lute and crumhorn with guitar and harmonium, the album is a strange combination of historical curiosity and modern pop.
Still, the elegant oddness of Dr Dee doesn't come entirely out of leftfield. There are visible roots for some of the musical choices. The African percussion, provided by the great Tony Allen, can be linked as far back as Albarn's 2002's Mali Music, in live gigs with his Africa Express Train collective, and a long history of collaborations with Allen. The fixation on an obscure historical figure, while uncharacteristically myopic for a songwriter usually given to brief character sketches, seems boundary-expanding for Albarn.
So while Dr Dee is no Parklife, it does contain kernels of classic Albarn, which makes it more approachable than it might initially seem. A track like "The Moon Exalted" may have a meandering intro, in a style more endemic to stage performance than recorded music, employing clavichord, cello, and whispery piano, but it still has a familiar feel and a distinct pop sensibility.
Albarn's voice grounds all the weirdness and antique instrumentation throughout: "Saturn," which pairs him with an ethereal female voice, a simple harmonium riff, and some distant strings, feels perfectly self-contained and clocks in at just two minutes, unlike many of the longer, more amorphous songs. Tracks where he doesn't sing are often harder to appreciate: "A Man of England," with its eccentric male vocals and big orchestral strikes, is forcibly difficult, reliant on outmoded singing styles and atonal composition. While bands have used operatic elements for years to vividly puff up their music and draw out some of the dramatic force of the theater, few have taken it in such an idiosyncratic direction, with pure operatic vocals and long stretches that diverge from classic pop. Dr Dee indicates both Albarn's continuing interest in experimentation and his resolute songwriting skills, but doesn't always make for the easiest listen.