Launched onstage in Manchester last summer, Albarn’s “folk opera” about the Elizabethan alchemist John Dee earned mixed reviews for its dense and incoherent narrative. Since then, the Blur and Gorillaz frontman has been tinkering away at his score, reworking it into this surprisingly splendid album.
Behind its avant-garde trills and ghostly Radiophonic sound effects, Doctor Dee is mostly composed of classic English folk-rock with clear lineage back to Syd Barrett, Robert Wyatt and David Bowie in his early sci-fi minstrel phase. Between birdsong, distant chimes and magical Wicker Man incantations, Albarn returns repeatedly to simple acoustic guitar arrangements with light chamber-pop orchestration.
Rueful and reflective, delicately strummed ballads such as Apple Cart and Cathedrals are the equal of anything in the singer’s vast archive of songs. His voice a grainy croak of world-weary melancholy, Albarn digs deep into the soft soil beneath his Britpop roots and finds fertile material. In summoning up visions of an ancient Albion, Albarn appears to have rediscovered his songwriting mojo, reconnecting to a musical family tree dating back to vintage Britfolk and pastoral psychedelia.
The result is his most musically sophisticated and melodically rich album in years, and arguably his first fully realised post-Blur masterpiece.