Albarn’s latest solo album is, once again, a testament to an artist who continues to challenge himself, and his listeners.

Photo: A markedly different beast … Damon Albarn. Photograph: Linda Brownlee

11 November 2021 | Alexis Petridis | The Guardian

When May’s Glastonbury livestream finally creaked into life, it offered viewers an interesting study in contrasts. At 9pm, Coldplay appeared, rolling out the big hits from their 20-year career on an illuminated platform in front of the Pyramid stage, the empty field filled with lights. It was a performance with a distinct hint of top-dog gamesmanship about it: ignore the running order – everyone knows who the headliners are here. Afterwards, the cameras cut to a mulleted Damon Albarn seated at a piano.

He performed a series of serpentine unreleased songs, decorated with shivering, abstract electronics and guitar and occasionally atonal string arrangements. He played a song from Dr Dee, his 2011 opera about the 16th-century mathematician, astronomer and occultist. And when he finally dished up something from the Blur or Gorillaz catalogues that the casual observer might know, it was rearranged in a way that made it sound darker and sadder.

Damon Albarn: The Nearer the Fountain, More Pure the Stream Flows album cover

It was a neat illustration of Albarn’s contemporary approach to music-making. By all accounts one of the most zealously driven artists of the Britpop era, he has spent the last 20 years doing something you would expect more major rock stars to do, but that hardly any actually seem to manage: using the space and time created by vast success in order to do exactly what they want, unbothered by commercial concerns.

Doing exactly what he wants has sometimes occasioned more vast success – Gorillaz’s second album Demon Days sold 8m copies worldwide – but there have also been musicals with lyrics in Cantonese, collaborative projects influenced by Sun RaFunkadelic and Fela Kuti, and soundtracks for immersive theatre works performed by the Kronos Quartet, none of which appear to be have been made with an eye on the charts or top billing at festivals.

Then there are the projects that sit somewhere in the middle of what you might call the sliding Albarn scale (Girls and Boys or Feel Good Inc at one end and Dr Dee’s experiments with the viol and theorbo at the other), of which The Nearer the Fountain is a perfect example.

The source of most of Albarn’s Glastonbury set, it began life as a commission from a French arts festival, underwent a knotty, Covid-punctuated gestation period and has emerged as the de facto follow-up to Albarn’s 2014 solo album, Everyday Robots.

It’s a markedly different beast from its predecessor: more opaque musically and lyrically, flecked with jazzy saxophone, frequently driven by the sound of an ancient drum machine. It drifts along in a melancholy, stoned mist – you can detect its origins in improvisations inspired by the view from Albarn’s Reykjavik studio – its mood subdued by the pandemic and the death in 2020 of frequent Albarn collaborator Tony Allen, whose ghost looms over the opening title track: “You seemed immortal … to my heart you were nearest.”

The lyrics are filled with disquieting memories of happier times: children playing on a beach, abandoned buildings where parties were once held. Ostensibly a love song, even the relatively upbeat Royal Morning Blue sounds haunted by something other than the relationship at its centre: “Nothing like this had ever happened before … stay by my side at the end of the world”.

There are moments where the music sounds almost too crushed by the weight of the world, where the songs start to unravel and become hard to latch on to. The Cormorant shifts in and out of focus, somewhere between dreamlike and frustrating; the intense sax improv of instrumental Combustion is hard work. But for the most part, the album’s mood is affecting and enveloping.

If there’s a thread that runs throughout Albarn’s diffuse projects, it’s a specific type of melody, suffused with a weary sadness, played out over descending chords. Its earliest iteration might have been on Blur’s This Is a Low, but it’s a style of writing that seems to crop up regardless of the musical setting. It even survived his experiments with a Chinese pentatonic scale on 2008’s Monkey: Journey to the West.

It’s pushed to the fore here, in some lovely examples of type: the tune of Daft Wader is plaintively beautiful, at least until it collapses into dark, foggy ambience; Darkness to Light swoons languorously in waltz time; the bleak travelogue of The Tower of Montevideo fits perfectly with its sighing tune.

There’s no getting around the fact that The Nearer the Fountain is emotionally heavy going. Optimism flickers fitfully through the murkiness, listeners who prefer the perky, poppy Albarn of Dare or Song 2 are resolutely not thrown a bone, and the sense of an artist doing precisely what he wants is as strong as ever.

Albarn recently suggested that he was “not opposed” to another Blur reformation on the grounds that it would be “light relief compared to what I do now”, but, for all its exhausted, preoccupied darkness, The Nearer the Fountain is a genuinely beautiful album.