A global crisis was never going to keep a music-making machine like Damon Albarn from doing what he loves best. Assembling the techni-colour collab fest which was ‘Song Machine, Season 1: Strange Timez’ over 2020, the British institution was also brewing up something far more intimate during the lockdowns that affected us all. Approached early last year by Lyon’s Fête des Lumieres to premiere a new project, Albarn set off to his beloved Reykjavik to get the creative juices flowing. Ever since escaping to Iceland by accidentally booking himself on a Saga over 50s cruise during Blur's heyday, the songwriter has longed to create a project reflecting the country's stirring landscape. Eager not to push the sessions into purely pop nor ambient territory, he let the recordings grow organically, led by the changing weather outside the studio window.
With Fête des Lumieres and the project soon derailed by the pandemic, Albarn later returned to the sessions in the wake of the passing of his friend and collaborator Tony Allen and a country facing its second then third lockdown. Much like his first solo effort, 2014’s 'Everyday Robots,' the results are often somber and contemplative with a greater sense of poetry and loss to them. In places, this record stands as some of Albarn's most beautiful and experimental work, while others teeter on the pleasantly forgetful.
Props must go to 'The Nearer The Fountain, More Pure The Stream' for reflecting the majesty of its recording locations, the eleven songs dripping with wintery charm. Be it the sessions first in Iceland or the finishing up at his home in Devon, the eleven tracks on offer are Albarn's most scenic and atmospheric to date. Some of that distinctively British flavour still rears its head on 'Darkness To Light,' however. The stoned waltz gives off a particular dying seaside town vibe, like the English Riviera during the off-season.
On the title track and previously released ‘Polaris’ and ‘Royal Morning Blue,’ he’s managed to marry a weary sense of hope on a bed of twinkling synths, horns, or synths. They’re often stately in scope but propelled forward with enough drive to stick in the head and heart. Elsewhere, Albarn opts to create a sense of dreamy nostalgia, reverb-drenched ditties with him laying down his best forlorn vocals. They sound gorgeous to the ear, but feel a little lightweight, like some of his most minor numbers on Gorillaz' 'The Fall' or 'The Now Now.'
This latest collection sees Albarn's wanderlust create an album of contrasts, a group of songs that are both his most personal and most alien, most intimate yet filled with grandeur. It won't appeal to those who prefer his party anthems and vibrant disco, but for those who want to see yet another side to this most prolific of musical minds, it's a voyage worth taking.
Words: Sam Walker-Smart
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