Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Damon Albarn embarks on an ethereal solo outing in ‘The Nearer The Fountain, More Pure The Stream Flows’

Damon Albarn is one of the most prolific creators of the past 30 years, consistently adding to an already impeccable musical output. From the stadium-filling Britpop of Blur to the electropop and hip-hop of Gorillaz, as well as the theatrical endeavours of Dr Dee, the whimsy of The Good, The Bad, and The Queen, and the ebullient Africa Express, he continues to innovate.

Surprisingly ‘The Nearer The Fountain, More Pure The Stream Flows’ is only Albarn’s second solo effort, a blisteringly beautiful sonic tour through the heights of Iceland’s idyllic mountains and across its crystalline seas. The album adopts its title from the line of a John Clare poem, demonstrating Albarn’s wide-ranging influences.

‘The Nearer The Fountain, More Pure The Stream Flows’ makes for a multi-sensory experience, with Albarn not only taking inspiration from Iceland but expertly recreating its atmosphere and transporting the listener to its opalescent planes. His voice is sometimes a melodic drone, soft but accented, and other times reaches enchanting falsetto. The titular track is nothing short of hypnotic, a beautiful synth-laden soundscape and tone-setter.

Having witnessed Albarn bring several prosaic pieces to life with orchestral accompaniment at Manchester International Festival earlier this year, the finished product certainly lives up to the anticipation. Albarn constructs a mosaic, reflective of the spiritual growth afforded by Iceland’s soothing scenery. Layers of abstract instrumentation are effortlessly interweaved beneath Albarn’s recognisable Essex drawl. A woozy Wurlitzer and merry marimba are among Albarn’s instruments of choice.

‘The Cormorant’ features some fascinating percussion and the benign strums of a guitar. Meanwhile, ‘Royal Morning Blue’ feels more akin to a Gorillaz number, with its punchy groove and captivating horn section making it a highly rewarding listen. Albarn plays with volume, sometimes underscoring his deft lyricism with subtle beats, sometimes amplifying it with electronic strains.

The tracklist is interspersed with ambient interludes which evoke the beauty of the natural environment Albarn fell in love with during the mid-90s, where he wrote and recorded much of Blur’s iconic 1997 self-titled album. One such track, ‘Combustion’, begins with a quietly harmonious buzz before evolving into a drum-driven stomper, and then a twinkly piano melody. It is a testament to Albarn’s musical talent and continued experimentation.

There’s something very intimate about this collection of songs. Albarn’s warm vocals confront the listener, making them feel spoken to, and reassured. ‘Daft Wader’ is sombre in lyric and tone, with Albarn’s mournful vocals providing a sense of comfort to the listener, as he sings “Oh cross-dressers […] Your love is great.”

His relationship with Iceland has endured, and he now owns a home there, as well as in Devon, where this record was completed. The sound of crashing waves seeps into the transitional nature of the tracks, evoking the coastal environment.

‘The Tower of Montevideo’ places sprawling drum loops beneath jazzy saxophone notes. Despite there being a lot to unpack in this track, it doesn’t feel at all incongruous but slides easily into place on the record. The haunting strings and joyous percussion of ‘Polaris’ introduce the track before a delicate piano melody imbues it with much-needed optimism.

With ‘The Nearer The Fountain, More Pure The Stream Flows’, Damon Albarn has delivered an emotional blizzard of exquisite compositions, his world-weary lyricism and melancholic musical underpinnings working together to produce yet another jewel in his increasingly eclectic discography.

Sarah Taylor


Image: Damon Albarn ‘The Nearer The Fountain More Pure The Stream Flows’ Official Album Cover

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